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6 Things That More Parents Should Be Doing

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

In a world consumed by technology and the pressure to boost children’s academic standings, perhaps it’s time for American parents to ask the questions posed by Linda Åkeson McGurk, a Swedish-American journalist:

  • "What if more toddlers spent their days watching real birds instead of playing Angry Birds on their iPads?"
  • "What if more kindergarteners actually got to grow gardens?"
  • "What if more schools increased the length of recess instead of the number of standardized tests?"
  • "And what if more children who act out were allowed out?”

Young children’s play is a well-documented learning reservoir, yet America’s children, and their parents, are not tapping into this vital resource. If anything, free play — indoor and out — is being squeezed. “Play is under pressure right now, as parents and policymakers try to make preschools more like schools. But pretend play is not only important for kids; it’s a crucial part of what makes all humans so smart,” says Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.

Liderina/Shutterstock
Source: Liderina/Shutterstock

Erika Christakis, an early childhood educator at the Yale Child Study Center, underscores this point when she reflects on her days at the beach as a small child. Her position illustrates what many young children are missing: “We’d look for pebbles of uniform size on the beach and space them out (learning how to estimate distance)…We’d make rows of inverted pails as walls…dribbling sand on the turret to make them look fancier. Most construction took a lot of ingenuity, too. The sides would collapse if we weren’t careful…I wasn’t worrying about my summer vocabulary list. My mother wasn’t either.”

Too many of our youngest learners are not playing outside — on the beach, in the park, in the woods, in the rain or snow. Free play has been replaced by early education consisting of tracing letters and ample “screen time.” In the desire for academic achievement, American parents and educators are ignoring the learning and social benefits of free play with friends, imagination, and exploration. Abandoning outdoor play also contributes, in part, to the escalating rate of obesity among American children.

The situation so alarmed McGurk, an Indiana-based journalist and blogger who was born and raised in Sweden, that she took her two young children, ages four and seven, back to her hometown for six months. In Sweden, she says, “Nature is not an abstract concept that is only taught on Earth Day…It’s an integral part of everyday life.”

In Sweden, an outdoor life is central to raising children, and McGurk is resolute that it encourages children to become environmentally conscious as well as physically and socially healthier. For instance, she points out that many believe dirt is actually good for you: It contains a microbe that improves cognitive functions, such as learning.

Sweden boasts of babies napping outside in winter, a situation that might send Child Protective Services to your door in America. In her book, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge), McGurk suggests — and offers solid evidence — that spending time outdoors is essential for child development. Contrary to American thinking, many Swedish parents fear being tagged “bad parents” if their babies and kids are not out in the fresh air every day, starting when they are infants.

Overscheduled with lessons and participation in organized activities from very young ages, little time is left for unstructured outdoor play. In an article, “Kids These Days: Why is America’s Youth Staying Indoors?” the Nature Conservancy found that by their teen years, only 10 percent of American children say they spend time outside every day.

A study published in Pediatrics revealed that a shocking 77 percent of children under 2 years old use a mobile device daily to play, watch videos, and do other activities. The study, “Exposure and Use of Mobile Media Devices by Young Children,” also found that a quarter of children younger than age five own a personal tablet that they typically use “without any supervision or help from the parents.”

It isn’t that smartphones and tablets aren’t as prevalent in Sweden as they are in the U.S.; it’s that nature-centric parents there don’t allow them to rule. Swedish parents claim that electronics are a learning tool, “not something to kill time with.” When parents see their kids becoming addicted to screens, they set limits and send them outside to play.

6 Scandinavian Parenting Practices to Adopt

In her book, McGurk offers what she calls Scandinavian parenting tips that American parents should seriously consider putting into practice. Among them:

1. Prioritize daily outdoor time from when your child is a baby to make it a natural part of your routine from the get-go. Not every nature experience has to be a grand adventure…watching a caterpillar move across the sidewalk is something a small child can admire.

2. Simplify childhood, and resist the urge to try to keep up with the Joneses’ kids. Filling young children’s schedules with a litany of “enriching” activities can do more harm than good.

3. The best way to raise an eco-conscious child is to be an eco-conscious parent. Live by the principle of the three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle — and involve your children in the process.

4. Try to embrace the weather for what it is. Let your child run wild and get dirty while playing outdoors.

5. Refuse to give in to the culture of fear that has quashed outside play as we know it. Dare to trust your children, and as they mature, gradually give them more unsupervised time outside.

6. Create screen-free zones in your home, or establish screen-free times of the day. And become more mindful of your own media use.

Copyright @ 2017 by Susan Newman

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References

Christakis, Erika. The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups. New York: Viking, 2016.

Gopnik, Allison. “Let the Children Play, It’s Good for Them!” Smithsonian Magazine, July, 2012.

Kabali, H. Irigoyen, M., Nunez-Davis, R., Budacki, J., Mohanty, S., Leister, K., and Bonner Jr., R. (2015). “Exposure and Use of Mobile Media Devices by Young Children.” Pediatrics, 136 (6) pp1044-1050.

McGurk, Linda Åkeson. There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets of Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge). New York: Touchstone, 2017.

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