Why and How to Make Outdoor Play a Priority

When you make outdoor play a priority, it offers you and your kids space to breathe and slow down. Nature is soothing and healing.

One afternoon, on an almost-fall Michigan day, my friend Angela asked us to go on an outside excursion with her and her kids for four hours. She was trying something new. Angela asked if we could bring a picnic lunch and meet them at a local park from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon.

I told her we were in, but I was skeptical. To be completely honest, I was slightly terrified. Four hours of misery coming right up, I thought. What were our kids possibly going to do for all that time without a train table, a sand table, action figures, Play-Doh, and a cartoon episode at the ready? How would we manage this stripped-down excursion where we just simply went outside?

The next morning, I packed lunches and snacks, tracked down stray shoes, and soothed toddler outbursts, and we hustled out the door. Angela picked out a spot at the park, and we each spread our picnic blankets on the sun-drenched grass. Sorely in need of some adult connection, we sat close together, holding our infants. We caught up on life, and the babies alternated between nursing, sleeping, and observing the subtleties of nature that vied for their attention.

We each had two older kids as well, toddlers and preschoolers. What did the older kids do during that time, you might wonder? To my utter surprise, they played for the entirety of those 240 minutes. Without the daily onslaught of things I threw at them in my failed attempts for a little peace and quiet, they played with the materials the Creator had expertly crafted for them. They reached into the depths of themselves and pulled out their imaginations.

Build Your Outdoor Time Purposefully

Nature play wasn’t just good for my kids that day. Oh no. For the first time in three years, I was able to enjoy some midday adult conversation, with a melodious backdrop of birds singing and trees rustling. The sun felt warm on my skin. I inhaled deeply, feeling the weight I’d carried on my shoulders begin to dissipate. I felt happy and fulfilled.

There was a vast difference between how I expected this little outing to go and how it actually went in real time. I had braced for it to go completely off the rails. What I expected to be an abysmal flop turned out to be a catalyst for transformative changes in our lives.

I’d watched my kids play that day, wondering, Why didn’t we do this sooner? Though we had spent time outside, it was always a leftover thing, thrown into our day between library visits, gymnastics classes, and shuffling kids to and from playdates. Going outside was an afterthought in our overscheduled days. That day at the park with our friends was purposely built around playing outside in nature, and it felt entirely different.

After that day, I canceled most of the programs our kids were involved in and started to meet outside with a few other families two or three times a week.

Space in Nature Will Help You Thrive

What I quickly learned was that I had been searching for the answers I needed in all the wrong places. Nature and empty space set aside for playing became my saving grace—they offered a solution to the overwhelm, overstimulation, and guilt that clouded my life. To go from barely surviving to thriving in most facets of life usually takes considerable time and effort, but sustainable change happened for myself and our kids with just one simple shift: prioritizing play.

We tend to think we need more: more entertainment, more materials, more planning, more discipline around technology, and more things to buy to keep our kids and ourselves happy, content, and competent. But nature is all around us, offering respite from our demanding schedules and overstimulated minds.

Though the power of nature is always available to us, many of us don’t know that we can deeply trust its offerings or bask in its care. We tend to discount nature play as a tried-and-true remedy for our anxious, overscheduled lives. We have trouble believing that simple play could be pivotal in preparing our kids for a complex future and helping us enjoy happier, more connected relationships as families today.

Have you missed this truth too? With all the effort we make to improve our lives, have you found your family moving farther away from a life of slowness and careening ever more quickly to doing as much and as fast as possible?

Stop. Press pause on all the activity clamoring for your attention today. Take an hour or two outside, and see what goodness awaits in God’s creation!

For reflection or family discussion:

  • What are a few of your favorite memories from childhood?
  • Think about times from your childhood when adults weren’t present or directing your play. How did you feel about those times? Do you look back on those memories fondly?
  • In what ways is the childhood of your child different from yours? Which of these differences strikes you as positive? Which strikes you as negative?
  • How can you be more intentional about filling your life with experiences that keep you connected to nature and our Creator?

Ginny Yurich is a homeschooling mother of five and founder of 1000 Hours Outside, a global movement designed to bring back balance between the virtual world and the world right outside our door. She also hosts and produces The 1000 Hours Outside Podcast. A thought leader in the world of nature-based play and its benefits for children, Ginny lives with her husband, Josh, and their kids in the Ann Arbor area of Michigan. Learn more at 1000hoursoutside.com.

For more insights into why and how to make outside play a priority, pick up Ginny’s book Until the Streetlights Come On: How a Return to Play Brightens Our Present and Prepares Kids for an Uncertain Future.

100 Words of Affirmation Your Son/Daughter Needs to Hear

Matt and Lisa Jacobson want you to discover the powerful ways you can build your children up in love with the beautiful words you choose to say every day–words that every son and daughter needs to hear.

These affirmation books offer you one hundred phrases to say to your son or daughter – along with short, personal stories and examples – that deeply encourage, affirm, and inspire.

So start speaking a kind and beautiful word into their lives daily and watch your children–and your relationship with them–transform before your eyes.

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