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My Backyard Is Now Free of Adult Rules. It’s Working.

When we made the yard rule-free, I thought it might become the Thunderdome. Instead, it's a place to learn how to enjoy freedom.

It was shortly after 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon that I realized I’d made going outside a punishment. Minutes before, my house had been filled with thumps and shrieks. My boys, 8 and 10-years-old, had engaged in a game in which they were gleefully throwing one another against the walls while shouting epithets: THUMP! SHRIEK! Your face smells like farts and you poop your underwear!

This behavior was obviously not conducive to my ability to get work done. So, I stalked into the hallway, where they were grappling in their skivvies, and used my Dad-voice: “Alright, guys. I’ve had enough. You need to get outside.”

Their protests were immediate. They pleaded and bargained. But I was not moved.

“I told you. Get some pants on and go outside!”

They huffed into their room, complaining and whining, dressed themselves shabbily, shoved unsocked feet into winter boots, and trudged outside, banging the door closed behind them. For a moment they blinked into the bright daylight, just standing there on the stoop. It was only a matter of time before they would ask to come back in.

I had officially sucked all of the joy out of going outside. I had turned the outdoors into a consequence, something to be endured. A front-yard exile. A forced-leisure gulag. My only solace, if you can call it that, is that I was engaging in a tactic shared by millions of my peers. The ‘ol go-blow-the-stink-off-ya routine.

The problem is. I want my kids to want to go outside. I want them to drop their bags in the hall after school, change into shorts and run for hills. I want them to rub the sleep out of their angelic eyes on weekend mornings and have their first conscious thought be focused on outdoor adventure and associated mischief.

I want this because the benefits of getting outside are many. There is an astounding amount of research that ties exposure to the natural world with improved outcomes for children. And those outcomes can occur even before birth.

A 2014 study looked at some 214,940 births and found access to green space increased birth weight, particularly for the least educated participants. A Swedish study from 2013 found preschoolers with access to hilly, open green play areas slept longer and had higher health ratings by parents. And a 2016 study from the United Kingdom found that exposure to nature has a particularly positive impact on tests of working memory and concentration.

But that’s not all, exposure to nature is also linked to better heart health, lower incidences of obesity and better balance and coordination. Kids who are excited to get outdoors will also stretch their imagination and gain practical knowledge as they build forts and fall off of logs.

Forcing a child to go outside, particularly as punishment, is like keeping them at the dinner table until they eat their vegetables. Does a child get some benefits when they’re forced to eat vegetables? Sure, but it’s also setting the stage for a life where vegetables are an unpleasant chore. So I’ve decided to stop making the outdoors a threat. My new goal is to help my kids develop a love of nature that will lead to health benefits for the rest of their lives.

How? It comes down to cultivating a fine mix of indoor boredom and outdoor shenanigans. And so far the strategy has proved fruitful.

Boredom comes first. We have now instituted periods of tech-free quiet in the house. The game console and the tablets have hard time limits. Once they’re off, the boys can do what they like. Reading is fine. Building forts is great. Playing with clay or building Lego is a-okay. But contests of strength and agility must be done outside and there are no holds barred. Which is to say, we’ve made it explicit that outdoor play is free from adult rules.

That’s important. Because just as getting outside should not be a punishment, outside mischief should be pardonable. There has to be space for the chaos and mess that outside offers. A muddy, dirty, bruised and bloody-kneed kid is a kid who’s been living their outdoor life to the absolute fullest. There’s no better way to put a halt to outdoor fun than scolding a kid for being dirty, or not being careful enough when climbing a tree.

Yes, there are boundaries: hurting an animal for cruelty’s sake, and wanton vandalism and violence against others are forbidden. Also, helmets should be worn.

What I’ve found is that in the absence of media, my boys have started seeking outdoor freedom. For one thing they’ve discovered wrestling with neighborhood friends on the trampoline is more fun than hall skirmishes. They’ve learned that there’s joy to be had in daring bike sprints down local hills. And they’ve developed a sense of autonomy, building a secret fort in the woods with a couple pals.

But boredom is a passive measure on my part. I’ve an active role in this too in promoting family outdoor adventure. That can mean something as simple as a hike in the local park district. It can mean a camping trip. But it can also mean digging a new flower bed together. Which is to say this isn’t Adventure with a capital A, as much as it’s family-centric outdoor interactions.

Happily, my boys are young enough that they still feel uncomfortable without an adult in the house. They will elect to follow us if we head out the front door. So that means, I go out the front door more too.

Along with boredom and adventure, I’ve adjusted discipline. Now I offer the trampoline when roughhousing erupts. It’s not a threat, it’s a suggestion. It’s not a punishment, but a reminder. And in those moments where I need space, I find it myself. A good set of noise-canceling headphones and a locked door can work wonders.

Sure, some parents may feel they’ve lost a discipline tool when they stop threatening children with the outdoors. But parents who give consequences should broaden their horizons. There are plenty of things annoying kids can do to make up for their bad behavior that don’t include banishment.

Because the fact is, natural consequences are good. But if we want healthy outdoor kids, they should never be about nature.