Children Need Time to Play Each Day—Unstructured, Outdoor Adventures


Stock photo of Swings from SCX User Bubbels

A Q&A with Shauna Mokelki, Manager of I Hope Family Centre programs at Family Services of the North Shore, was featured in the September 22, 2014 edition of North Shore News:

Question: When I was a child I’d race out of the house each summer morning and jump on my bike to find my friends. We’d climb trees, run through sprinklers, have tea parties on front lawns and arrive back home for lunch dusty, hungry and excited about our plans for the afternoon. I’m feeling nostalgic for my childhood summers and regretful that my children (three, six and twelve years old) are not having a similar experience. I want my children to be able to play outside, but people around me say it’s not safe. Can you help me sort through this?

"Despite our beautiful natural surroundings on the North Shore, many children in our community are not experiencing as much active outdoor play time as their parents did as children. Your children will benefit from a connection with the natural world and one of the best ways to cultivate this is through unstructured outdoor play. Once outside, children will naturally ramble through tall grass, tromp in mud puddles, turn shells, and climb hillsides.

What are we losing by not getting our kids outside? On the 2014 Active Healthy Kids Report Card, Canada was given the sobering stat of D- on the physical health of our children, despite being relatively well-rated on organized sport activities. Researchers from University of Regina have found that children who spent most of their after-school time outside were three times more likely to meet guidelines for daily physical activity and were in better shape than those who spent all of their after-school time indoors. According to study (2014) author, Dr. Lee Schaefer, “If we can get students outside more often, they are going to be more active, which is going to benefit them in the long term.”

When children play outside they burn energy and develop physical literacy as they use their large muscles to run, push, jump and skip. They charge their imaginations as games are invented from what is naturally around them. Additionally, children begin to evaluate risk, problem solve and make decisions as they discover the silliest way to cross a creek, the best place to dig a sand moat on the beach and the highest point from which they can comfortably land.

With your encouragement, guidance and supervision, young children will benefit by learning to observe and interact in the world around them. Right from infancy you can explore local parks, trails and even backyards, where together you can gather elements for fort building, set up a sprinkler or plant a garden to discover planning, planting and harvesting. Look for opportunities in your wandering to share knowledge and encourage learning such as noticing the slippery mossy surface as you stop to dip your toes in cold, clear water and the shape, color and taste of a huckleberry, introducing the idea that they need to check with you before eating any berry to ensure its safety.

Built on a solid foundation of being outdoors with you, older children can continue their skill building in risk assessment, trusting their own impressions and removing themselves from any people or situation they don’t feel comfortable with. This will serve them in all settings and relationships and will further aid them to build confidence and independence. Older children can be given wider boundaries and, with guidelines, be allowed to roam a little further. Prior to them venturing out, talk with your older child about a safety plan, including physical boundaries, staying with a friend, and setting a check-in time (ensuring they have a watch so they can be successful). A back up plan is also useful and may include a conversation about whom your child can talk to if she needs assistance, such as a specific neighbour or a uniformed park employee. Consider establishing a confidential family password which, in an emergency, alerts your child that an adult that uses it has done so with your permission. If using a cell phone to maintain contact with your child, establish clear rules for usage and that ensure you, the parent, don’t over text a child – this is screen free time.

You may want to try some of these activities to increase your family’s outdoor experiences:

  • Invite friends and neighbours to join your family on an outdoor adventure. After enjoying time together, your group may be interested in sharing the task of getting kids outside, such as inviting the group over for back yard playdates or volunteering to round up neighbourhood kids for a trip to the park. Building relationships with children across age groups teaches responsibility to older children and creates mentoring relationships for younger children.
  • Pitch a tent, in the back yard or at one of the local campsites. An evening under the stars, will build life long memories.
  • Consider having a sandbox, or water table in your yard or on your patio. Notice what bits of nature are right around you.
  • Come out to an I hope family centre - Learning Together Through OUTDOOR Play session, a summer drop in program for families of children birth to six years, being held Tuesday (Mosquito Creek Park, Fell at 17th) and Friday (St. Andrews Park, St. Georges at 11th) mornings at local parks and Wednesday mornings in our fenced Maplewood yard (399 Seymour River Place). Older siblings are encouraged to attend. At Maplewood, you can visit the animals at the Maplewood Farm on our membership. This summer connections program is made possible by funding from the Lower Lonsdale Legacy Fund.

“The DIRT on DIRT”, released in 2012 by The National Wildlife Federation, shared “spending time outside is great for kids, and studies show that getting dirty...might be even better. With benefits to immune systems, hearts and skin, as well as kids’ emotional well being and learning skills, doctors may soon prescribe “make 2 mud pies and call me in the morning”. While no local doctor has been known to write that prescription we, at Family Services of the North Shore, I hope family centre are taking the idea to heart."