I don’t think it’s ever been more important to cultivate in our kids a love of the outdoors.
“Normal” life for the average kid these days is a virtual minefield of forces attempting to disassociate the individual from the reality of the world around them. Between the onslaught of network TV, video games, handheld devices of all shapes, and school pharmacologists pushing pills upon kids to further disassociate their feelings and observations from their own control, it’s never been more important for kids to learn to experience nature and to come to an understanding of how wonderful the outside world is.
I work with computers all day, and have for nearly all of my professional career – but I grew up on a farm, and didn’t own a computer until I was 18. The last thing I want for my own children is for them to grow to adulthood with the only thing “real” to them being what they can see on a screen.
I know that not everyone is the outdoorsy-type, but I’ve come up with a lot of reasons why keeping my kids outdoors is near the top of my list of parenting priorities.
Outdoors exercise & childhood sanity have a demonstrable relationship.
I know every child is different. However, just about every kid I know (myself included) starts to go a little loopy the more you coop them up inside. Any time I’ve had difficulty with my kids, times where they’ve been acting up for no particularly great reason (i.e. they’re fed & rested, but still acting crazy / destructively), there’s been a common denominator: they haven’t been outside.
Allowing the kids to stretch their legs and see how fast they can run, to explore the woods and see how many spiders and forest creatures they can find, to see if they can balance over that one scary log, etc – it means everything in terms of keeping them looking outwardand perceiving & handling their environment.
There’s no playground like the woods.
As a parent of small children, I do appreciate the ready availability of today’s over-engineered playgrounds – with their plastic slides, guardrails, and recycled-rubber-foam padding that make it statistically improbable for any child to have a serious injury while playing. That being said, though, manufactured playgrounds really don’t hold a candle to the real-world playground of the woods in terms of testing kids’ abilities to trust in themselves, to learn to balance or else, and to learn & explore their own limits.
Obviously, the benefit (and pitfall) of manufactured playgrounds is they require little parental oversight. Parents can play Angry Birds while their kids whiz around the playground free of relative danger. But in the woods, it takes plenty of (frankly glorious) parental participation. For example – finding a big log that crosses a stream, and helping the kids to trust in their balance to cross it. It’s something we all did as kids which can sometimes be missing in today’s controlled play areas. “What if I fall, daddy?” Well, what if you fall? Get them to understand the consequences, but also their own strengths. Get them to understand that moss is slippery when wet, that wood can rot and crumble, that some roots are better hand-holds than others for scrambling up a slippery slope, and that your little kid body can do a lot more crazy s–t than you think.
Every trip outside is an opportunity to learn.
A brilliant part of including copious amounts of time outside as part of the parenting regimen, is that you’re offered countless opportunities to teach kids about the world. My oldest is only 7, yet I could probably fill a book with the number of learning opportunities I’ve already had with them. There’s finding out about what bugs are poisonous and which aren’t, identifying animal prints and animal scat (+1 for the awesome book series, “Who Pooped in the Park“), identifying animals by their calls, and learning how to skip rocks. There’s learning to balance, climb and bike on natural (and sometimes treacherous) surfaces, and even learning to deal with the scrapes, cuts, punctures and thorns that come with outside play.
All of it is a big reason why I really don’t end up with a problem with my kids spending a bit of time on handheld devices – because my wife and I spend so much time with them outdoors, putting quality individual time with them getting them to understand their world and interaction with it.
I want them to have a responsibility for their planet.
A major tenet of my religion is the relationship of knowledge, responsibility and control. You can’t expect someone to take responsibility for something they don’t know about and which they don’t feel they can influence. If someone can control something, and has a deep and personal understanding of it, he will naturally be responsible for it.
I want my kids to have a profound personal connection to their environment. I don’t want them to just be “told” about protecting our great forests, I want them to know what a forest looks, smells and feels like, and the wonderful tranquility of mountainous view untarnished by industry, pollution and over-harvesting. Our next generation will be the ones that inherit our future, and we hope that they will be conscious of the environment and will be responsible stewards of our great natural resources. I feel that only by exposing them directly to as much of it as possible will they be able to develop a personal connection to their environment that will benefit us all in the future.