A few weeks ago, a friend and I drove over to The Fenn School in Concord to see Dr. Anthony Rao, author of "The Way of Boys," speak about raising happy and healthy boys. Between the two of us, we have four boys and thought it might be time well spent to listen to a professional on the topic.
I have done my fair share of reading on the subject of boys (and girls, too, for that matter) but heard something that stayed with me. Dr. Rao spoke about this generation’s mass migration indoors. As I sat in the theater and listened to all of the ways being outside benefits human beings, I became sad at the notion that our kids aren’t spending nearly enough time outside playing. I am not talking about team sports, either. I am talking about unstructured outdoor play. I started remembering my childhood and all of the backyards I knew so well exploring with my friends. There were no fences, no privacy trees and no evil eyes as we took over neighbor’s yards to practice our round off back handsprings or some version thereof. I know, I know—times were different then, but I am not that old, and times could not have changed that much.
However, according to Dr. Rao, they have, and these changing times are hurting our children.
So what do we do about it? After all, it’s cold here in New England the majority of the year. After my mini daydream down memory lane in the middle of the lecture, I started to realize it wasn’t rocket science these parenting professionals were suggesting but rather free play outside in your own backyard. I could do that and I was, so what’s the problem? The problem is that fewer and fewer parents are supporting the theory that outdoor unstructured play for kids is vital to their health and academics. We have all seen the research suggesting that recess has been cut way too much and that unstructured play is important to childhood development, so I won’t go there now, but in our overly structured lives many of us think this kind of play is a waste of time.
I may have agreed with those naysayers if it wasn’t for a snowy afternoon about two years ago. My daughter was having some “indoor fatigue” as Dr. Rao calls it, and I sent her outside to our backyard in about two feet of snow. Our toy bin was frozen shut and the play structure was covered with snow and ice. I watched my daughter, then four, look around to analyze the situation. She started walking back to the house and I thought my free time was over. She peeked her head inside and said, “Mom, do you have some Tupperware I can play with?” My smile grew wide as I handed her three different size Tupperware bowls and watched her turn back to the yard.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that she played with those three bowls for over an hour in sheer delight. I stood at the window slightly dumbfounded that someone could have so much fun with three bowls and some snow. Yes, I have told this story many times, but it is because it proves my point. Kids don’t need organized games all of the time and maybe there is something to all of the fuss about free play. My daughter must have concocted dozens of scenarios and experiments with those bowls that day, and all without guidance or structure from anyone.
Do a little experiment this week with your kids and pick a time that may be a little challenging in your house (for us it is right when the kids get home from school) and send them outside in the backyard. Turn off the TV, put away the computers, smart phones and Wiis and just hand them their hats and gloves. The look of shock will eventually wear off, and maybe this outdoor time will become second nature to them and all of the benefits of being outside will make themselves apparent in their health, school work, focus and overall happiness. I know it does for my kids.