This Summer, Put Your Kids Outside

Even better, take away their devices and give them some unstructured time.

Posted Jun 30, 2019

I’ve been blogging about resilience for years, and the one consistent theme I keep encountering is the need for children (and adults) to be outside, in unstructured activities, getting a little dirty. If that sounds like something from a bygone day, then maybe we should look backwards to a time when we had far lower rates of anxiety and better physical health. Our parents likely slept better. Even children with a host of disorders like ADHD and conduct disorder seemed to cope. I’m not entirely naïve, of course. There was bullying and abuse and occasionally children got hurt building tree forts. But in protecting them by sheltering them inside we may have lost what was good about carefree days outside without an adult in sight.

My recommendation is simple: this summer, push the kids outside and let them find things to do without any structure at all. Let them be bored! Self-direct their play. Experience a little risk and a whole lot of responsibility for themselves. Developmentally, it may be just what children need to build life-long skills for resilience.

Whereas it used to be amazing for a child to go to camp, or be in a sporting activity, these days children are so programmed that less programming is becoming more desirable. Our children need time to figure out their own amusements. Being enrolled in one sport for an evening or two a week is great. A daytime camp for a week or two makes perfect sense as well. But an entire ten week summer vacation of adult programmed activities that squash activity and force children to always behave just doesn’t make sense. It may not even be good for kids.

Whether it is improving our children’s microbiome by getting dirty, or simply moving more when activities are less structured, there are endless arguments for children being told to “Go outside, play, get dirty and come back when it gets dark.” If you are anxious your child may not have someone to play with (because all the other kids are busy in structured activities) then consider organizing groups for children to spend time together. Then throw them some art supplies. Some sports equipment. Heck, offer them a hammer, nails, a magnifying glass, a bucket and a shovel and see what happens (I seem to recall these tools of chaos being particularly useful most summer days).

Here are a few more specific recommendations for a summer designed to build children’s health and psychological wellbeing:

1) Tech-free days. Collect the screens and tell children to find something else to do. Many of us adults have workshops or sewing machines, art supplies or hobbies that our children have completely overlooked as sources of amusement. This can be changed.

2) Sleep. Forget the scheduling and let children (especially teens) sleep in late. Their brains need extra sleep and they may enjoy less structure to their day. If it gets really out of hand, then give them some chores to do (preferably outside, but at a reasonable hour).

3) Let the kids stay up late (with lots of outdoor activity-sleep will take care of itself). Yes, I just said let kids sleep in, but actually, the best solution might be to let them exhaust themselves outside. My guess is that they will fall asleep nicely on their own (younger children are particularly good at sleeping after a day outside).

4) Mud. For so many reasons, kids need to be fully immersed in dirt. Years ago, I had the chance to visit an urban park in Perth, Australia that had spent a great deal of attention (and, oddly, money) to ensure part of their urban park was a wild natural setting. It quickly became the most popular part of the park even though it had no actual playground equipment; just trees and dirt and a river to muck around in.

5) Family time. This summer, when you travel, try a no screens rule and encourage the kids to become bored in the back seat. They may just start asking for some attention, and games. If you wind up stopping at all those wonderful roadside attractions, all the better. The kids may enjoy them that much more if they aren’t putting aside devices or having to stop texting friends. Being with family can happen in the car, at the dinner table (a picnic table is even better), or beside a lake. The trick is to get the kids out of the house and see if suddenly you have something to share with one another.

There are likely dozens of other strategies to help kids explore the outdoors. Feel free to share them in the comments section of this Blog.

Have a great summer!