In the era of iPads, Xboxes, and meticulously scheduled after-school activities, it’s not terribly surprising that most kids respond to “go outside and play” with a blank stare. But that doesn’t mean you should stop saying it. “Kids need regular, unstructured, outdoor time,” says Peter Hoffmeister, cofounder and director of South Eugene High School’s Integrated Outdoor Program, and the author of Let Them Be Eaten By Bears: A Fearless Guide to Taking Our Kids Into the Great Outdoors. Hoffmeister, a father of two, has some creative ways to get kids to play outside in the Digital Age. Here’s his top advice.
Start By Looking Inward
Young kids model their behavior after the behavior of their parents. If you want a daughter who reads, she needs to see you reading for pleasure. Ditto if you want your son to pick up after himself. So first, consider your current relationship with the outdoors. When was the last time you went outside for pleasure — something other than a workout, yard work, or walking the dog? If going outside has become nothing more than a chore for you, it won’t be appealing to your kid.
Let Your Kid Take The Lead
Dragging Junior along on a three-mile hike isn’t much fun for anybody. Instead, let your children determine which activity you choose to do outside. Your job is to get them to a patch of wilderness; their job is the call the shots. You may end up picking wildflowers, climbing a tree, exploring off-trail, or all the above. Kids will engage more with the outdoors when they do so on their own terms.
In the dark, even camping in your suburban backyard can feel adventurous, so bring out the sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows for a night of sleeping under the stars. The experience is thrilling—no matter what your age. Letting kids feel the wander and, yes, fear, of being beneath the wide-open sky can make them a little bit braver, and a little more curious about the outdoors.
Get Dirty On Purpose
Our sanitized culture can deter kids from playing outside by making them subconsciously equate “healthy” with “clean.” Show them that it’s OK to go barefoot in the yard—kicking off your shoes and reading on the lawn feels amazing—and embrace inclement weather by playing in the snow, or taking a puddle-stomping walk during a downpour (“Hey, let’s go outside and get soaked!”)
Don’t Confuse Organized Sports with Playing Outside
Soccer practice and playing outside do not accomplish the same thing, except for maybe increasing Vitamin D. Modern child psychology tells us that, beyond organized sports, kids also need unstructured play, the kind that’s not adult-supervised nor adult-driven. So, the next time you tell your daughter to go outside and play, and she responds with that ‘What the heck do you want me to do out there?’ eye roll, consider that being out there and wandering is exactly what she needs.