Sunday, July 17, 2011

Weekly Column: Outdoor Freedom

One of the easiest ways to have fun with kids is to get outside with them as a family. 
Besides occupying a boring stretch of time, being outdoors together forces us to embrace the exercise and imagination we’re always encouraging in our children.  When they see us participating in playtime, it promotes their interest in more: more time away from television or video games, more time discovering the world, more time growing in new and creative ways.
We become proof for them that being outside is fun and easy.
And while those benefits are obvious and desirable, there is also much to be said for letting kids venture outside on their own. 
I’ve noticed that there is never so much freedom of imagination and unstructured playing as when my kids are allowed to be by themselves.  Instead of depending on me to provide ways to fill their time, they have to think of it on their own, which always leads to different endeavors than I would have suggested. 
They make collections of acorns or favorite rocks.  They find endless entertainment in transporting twigs or branches into a pretend campfire.  There are hours of imaginary play that happens under the swingset or in the garden.  Bug-watching, berry smashing, butterfly hunting – these are more simple activities than I would have thought to be entertaining, but they love it.  They don’t need a structured game or plan much of the time; they just go. 
It’s true that their age plays an important role in this equation – I wouldn’t be comfortable with setting a tiny toddler loose in the backyard unsupervised – but I also think that we don’t give our little ones enough credit for being able to follow simple guidelines or use their judgment in finding ways to keep busy.  I also feel comfortable with the parameters in which we allow them to wander.  The scope of our yard is such that there is nowhere they are allowed to go that is out of my eyesight from a nearby window or porch. 
But even if you feel like it’s impossible in your neighborhood to let them be alone outside, there are still ways to let them experience that independence of play while getting out of their way.  Sitting back with a book or notepad lets them know that we’re close by, but occupied enough to not allow their dependence on our direct involvement.  In this case, it’s important not to model reliance upon electronics like laptops or phones to keep ourselves entertained while we expect differently of them.
And I admit that it can be cringe-inducing to watch them muddy themselves in pursuit of the perfect mud-pie without stepping in to moderate or discourage, but those activities are part of letting them discover their own entertainment. 
My daughters are slowly getting used to the idea of freedom outside.  They scamper in the back door with requests for help or unresolved arguments fairly often, but the more we experiment with a lack of parental presence, the easier it becomes for them to fill their outdoor hours without adult intervention. 
And the more they desire that freedom.
It’s bittersweet, watching them grow up enough not to need their parents for entertainment every moment of the day.  The only question then becomes….
How will we keep ourselves busy without them?

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