P – Pausing for Play

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Photo Adapted from Night Owl @ pixabay.com

I’m supposed to be writing about problem-solving skills today. That was what I told myself when I made my list for the A-Z Blogging Challenge. However, when I sat down to write this morning, all I could think of was watching my sons play outside this past weekend. So, today, I’m pushing the pause button and thinking instead about the value of unstructured play (which has a lot to do with improving problem-solving skills, too).

See, here in Michigan, spring *finally* arrived. After a winter and early spring of temps not getting above 40 degrees (F), the sun came out this weekend and the red in the thermometer shot above 70. We were like people who have been trapped in a dark, wet cave as we walked outside, shielding our eyes from the intense sun we haven’t seen in months. It was glorious!

My husband and I spent the weekend doing yard work—you know, the spring clean-up tasks that seem never-ending this time of year. My sons helped for a short time, but they they got bored (see my earlier post on Imagination for why I find this such a great moment). They went out to their play area, a wooden structure my dad built them surrounded by sand and woods. In a few minutes, they were digging holes (We’re making a mine, Mom!”) and leaning tree branches against a big oak (”Our fort!”). My oldest grabbed a rake to make the front yard of his fort tidy and then called excitedly to show me. Before the weekend was over, they’d played just about every backyard sport they could come up with (anyone for a game of badminton-softball-into a soccer goal?) and replanted some lovely flowers (weeds) into pots to decorate their fort.

At the end of both Saturday and Sunday nights, my sons were filthy, hungry, exhausted—and HAPPY. What more could a parent ask for? I didn’t entertain them or set up fancy games they could play. And neither one once asked to go inside to play with their electronics. They were having too much fun outside playing. They were solving problems with creative solutions.

The benefits of outdoor play have been well documented. This list comes from Head Start Body Start:

  • Become fitter and leaner
  • Develop stronger immune systems
  • Have more active imaginations
  • Have lower stress levels
  • Play more creatively
  • Have greater respect for themselves and others

If you’re into lengthy academic articles (sorry, my kind of thing!), I highly encourage these two articles on the value of outdoor play:

How will you get outside to play today? (And yes, adults need to get outside and play sometimes, too!)

I – Imagination

imagination 26 reasons to take your family outside

Adapted from kids-1015856_1920_DeannaChka 2 Pixabay.com

“Mom, I’m bored!”

Spring break was only a few hours old when I heard those words issue from my seven-year-old son’s mouth. I resisted the temptation to get annoyed or angry. Instead, my reply was simple:

“Good!”

There’s an old saying that goes “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In my experience, there’s a useful variation on that saying:

Boredom is the mother of IMAGINATION.

I often talk with parents who say they don’t take their kids outside because the kids get bored. Maybe I’m unusual in saying this, but I believe it’s when the kids get bored that they’re most open to imaginative possibilities. Once upon a time, children played with simple wooden blocks and were happy for hours. These days, unless the blocks walk, talk, and do backflips, kids are bored.

Kids aren’t the only guilty ones in this discussion, though. In general, our threshold for tolerating boredom has decreased substantially. We expect someone—or something—to entertain us. We stare at blinking screens all day, absorbing content. We hate to wait for anything, pulling out our phones even when we’re out for a walk or over dinner with friends. We’ve grown used to constant stimulation.

When we get outside, if we put away those electronic devices and really just be there, we aren’t sure what to do with ourselves. We get bored. I’ve talked with plenty of people who say they hate camping because there’s nothing to do but sit around. That “sitting around” is a gift—a moment away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a chance to reconnect with family, a quiet moment to reflect.

The outdoors present a great opportunity for us to be bored—and for our IMAGINATIONS to do some of the work usually accomplished by those blinking screens indoors.

How Does Being Outside Stimulate Our Imaginations?

First, the outdoors is open ended and never ending. There are no real “rules” as to how to play or what to do. Age limits don’t really exist. The choices are limitless, which gives our imaginations time to kick in and provide all sorts of possibilities.

Second, when we’re outside, all of our senses are engaged, from touch to smell. With so much sensory information, our imaginations can run wild and lead us to explore new places or try new activities.

Finally, our usual forms of indoor entertainment aren’t right in front of us so it’s up to our imaginations to help us provide our own entertainment from the world around us. Suddenly, branches become walls for a castle, feathers adorn the turrets, and shells are a road.

I encourage you to get outside for a while today and resist the temptation to give in as soon as someone says “I’m bored.” Let your imaginations run wild!

(But if you really must give in to that boredom nudge, check out the imagination-spurring outdoor family activity ideas on Pinterest.)

Read more of my Blogging From A-Z Challenge posts: 26 Reasons to Take Your Family Outside

A-Z Theme Reveal: 26 Reasons to Take Your Family Outside

leaves jumping 26 reasons to take your family outside

Scottish-American Naturalist John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” Not surprisingly, Muir is one of the people most responsible for the National Park System we have in the US today. He gave up a career in industry to wander his way from Indiana to Florida in 1867, sketching the flora and fauna along the way. Eventually, he made his way to California and surrendered himself to the lure of the natural world. PBS writes that Muir “felt a spiritual connection to nature; he believed that mankind is just one part of an interconnected natural world, not its master, and that God is revealed through nature.”

Muir understood the power of nature in a way that many 21st century people do not. Perhaps that was because he didn’t have the distractions of today, the phones, TVs, video games, and a thousand other things. In 2005, Robert Louv published a book called Last Child in the Woods, in which he coined the term “nature deficit disorder” and argued many behavior problems children were experiencing were related to the fact they no longer went outside.

The good news is that things are changing. The Outdoor Foundation released a report in 2013 that said 49.2% of Americans participated in some sort of outdoor recreation, and the National Park System reported record-breaking attendance in 2015.

Why do we need to get outside?

With so many things packed into our daily schedules, it’s not easy to find time to take a walk or play ball in the backyard. I’m guilty of going into hibernation mode as soon as the temperatures fall below 50. Can it really matter that much if we don’t get outside?

The simple answer is YES, it matters a great deal. The benefits for spending time outdoors—even just five minutes—have been well researched. Rather than get into them today, though, I’ve decided to make it my 2016 A-Z Challenge theme to give you 26 Reasons To Take Your Family Outside. Some of the reasons are lighthearted, but many are quite serious. My hope is that at least one of the reasons will you stick in your mind, and when you feel like you just want to relax on the couch and watch a movie, you’ll get up and head outside instead.

To get you started on your own outdoor adventure (and because it fits so well with the A-Z blogging challenge), I encourage you to take up the National Wildlife Federation’s “26 Ideas From A-Z” outdoor activity challenge with your family.

I hope you’ll check back for the 26 Reasons to Take Your Family Outside, beginning April 1, 2016! 

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