Getting young kids outdoors

My 3 year old has started saying, “I’m going to take off my shoes to feel what the ground feels like.”  I think it’s great – when we’re playing in the yard. Less desirable when we’re in a public bathroom. At least I have some evidence of my efforts to include more natural movement in our days. This includes getting my kids outdoors much more. Barefoot when possible.

Young kids outdoors enjoying nature

A couple years ago, I came across this concept of natural movement, mainly through the work of Katy Bowman. Before that, I had given never thought much to why spending time outside is important. Extended amounts of time. Since then I’ve been fascinated by the topic. Being outside and moving  outside have so many benefits. Benefits beyond the fact that those little toddler tornadoes are not making a mess in the house while they are outside.

So why is getting kids outdoors so great?

That topic deserves its own post but here’s a brief rundown of what made it important to ME. The obvious one for me is the chance to become a competent mover – to walk, run, climb, balance, and more, with joy and ease. Then there’s developing an appreciation for nature. Along with that, understanding how things grow and where food comes from. Things I was less aware of – emotional regulation, ability to focus, creativity, social skills (assuming they can find some other kids outside). Outdoor time is even good for eyesight, with a chance to look at things farther away and get a break from staring things (like screens!) just a few feet away or closer.

Not long ago I read this article, suggesting that kids have 3 hours of outdoor play time on a daily basis. And then this article, about a family that set out to make that happen.

Of course. That makes perfect sense. But CRAP, I felt like I was hardly getting my kids outside AT ALL.

My kids are toddlers, 1 and 3, so I can’t just send them out to play on their own. That seems easier (of course, now is the time to instill the outdoor habit so they WILL go out on their own when they’re older).  Even on good days, where we go to the park in the morning and a walk in the evening, we might not hit the three hour mark.  I probably didn’t get it as a kid either. I’ve always been a bit… indoor-sy?

A minor note I read that struck me is that kids increasingly struggle to tolerate the wind in their faces. I specifically remember times I would panic, feeling like I couldn’t breathe when trying to run into a stiff wind. Hmm. I also didn’t care for the summer heat (Ha! Now I live in the gulf south… let’s just say that my definition of what level of heat is tolerable has had to change.)  And going barefoot? I don’t recall ever being barefoot except at the beach, and I hated the dry feeling my feet would get afterwards. I spent more time outside as I got older, but it was pretty one-dimensional. I would just run or walk, almost always on city streets. I want my kids to have a richer outdoor experience.

Last year, I could see that my oldest child wasn’t getting enough chances to practice varied movements. He had just no concept of how to hold on or pull with his arms (hanging/swinging/climbing). He was always a super “pusher,” but pulling, he just didn’t get it.  I would always be afraid  it would lead to him falling at the playground. He also could not figure out jumping. My solution was to enroll him in preschool gymnastics, where he at least gets to practice (which we love, and he’s so much stronger now). A step, but it’s still inside.

So I’ve been putting more focus on getting myself and the kids outdoors a lot more.

To build more outdoorsy-ness into our family culture. It’s hard though.

Because once I get outside, I don’t really know what to do with myself beyond going for a walk or run.

Partly because I live in the south and I am a total wuss about the heat. I am not great about dealing with other environmental challenges either.

Partly because it is just not a habit. I’m trying to change that.

We should all have a clear rocky creek to explore
We’d love to have this in our backyard.

Partly because I live in a town, and our house has a rather small yard. Not that there aren’t opportunities here; there are. But I see so many articles on this topic with pictures of kids playing in a beautiful rocky creek bed or picturesque forest floor. I’m sure there are some great, magical places around here somewhere, but I don’t know how to find them without trespassing on someone else’s property.

[Plus I have found a spider in the house every day this week, and a baby gecko, so staying inside is practically the same as being outside, right?]

It’s a work in progress, but we’re getting out more.

At the park

Climbing at the park, enjoying movement outdoors
He’s a pro at ladders now.

We’ve been making use of public parks and playgrounds to increase our outside time. We have a nice selection of them here.  I get excited when they climb in new ways. I smile when they find curbs to use as balance beams. And when they leave the equipment to go exploring acorns and sticks? Overjoyed. When they climb through the bushes that are part of the landscaping? Well, I hope nobody notices, and I’d stop him if it seemed to be damaging it, but  mostly I just am amused. We even collected acorns and pinecones for our Thanksgiving centerpiece.

Toddlers on the nature trail, one way to get kids outdoors
Trying out a walk in the “forest.”

Recently we had a little adventure to a nature trail we found at a park that’s walking distance from our house. After about one minute, the one year old stumbled a couple times then insisted on being carried. The three year old seemed to enjoy/tolerate it with mild interest, and we spent maybe 20-30 minutes in “the forest.”  I only saw one large spider, but when i did I was reminded that I have zero nature skills and no idea what I would do if we were bit by something poisonous. But we’ll go back there.


Down the street

Beyond that, we frequently walk around our block. The kids usually  want to collect sticks, tiny wildflowers, and dried up leaves.  We’ll take the time to marvel at the mushrooms that sprout up after soggy days. Those became a collectors item for a while. Then I discovered that our mushroom stash in the garage was the source of an odor far, far worse than the dirty diapers that are also kept in there. So no more mushroom keeping. (Unless someday we progress to foraging and identifying edible ones.)


In the yard

A nature experience watching a gecko color change
We were fascinated watching our gecko friend change colors.

I’ve also been trying to remember that just being outside in our backyard, small and “boring” though it may seem, is worthwhile too. Sometimes it’s just feeling the fresh air and breeze while they play with some paints. Or they play with soil and dried up potted plants, remainders from this summer’s container garden. Recently we watched a gecko change color from brown to bright green and back. Geckos are the type of thing that my un-naturey self avoids (and if it’s in the house?? Ughhhh!!!). But this was a really cool experience, even for me. I’ve taken to calling him “our gecko friend,” hoping not to pass on my little phobia. Now whenever my oldest son sees a gecko on our door or window he calls out “I see our gecko friend!”

Focusing on these simple activities has already made a big difference in how often we get the kids outdoors. What are your favorite solutions?

Author: Lisa

Hi, I’m Lisa. Dietitian, runner at heart, and most importantly mom of two amazing little boys. I want to raise a family that nourishes itself well – through food, movement, and continuous learning, and I want to help you do the same!

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