Dear Dr. Debbie,
I remember having lots of friends to play with after school.
We’d make chalk drawings on the sidewalks, look for four leaf clovers in the grass, ride our bikes, go to the playground, etc. My children, on the other hand, use up their full screen time limit of two hours per day and still whine and make excuses why they can’t go outside for even fifteen minutes and find a friend to play with.
What Ever Happened To Playing Outside?
The easiest excuse is that there’s no one to play with. There are so few children going outside to play that the problem is causing a bigger problem. Without playmates to compel a child to get out there, playing outside may sound like a dreary way to spend some time.
Let’s run down the typical excuses and discuss corresponding strategies:
“It’s too cold / hot / muddy / buggy”
The less time children spend outside, the less comfortable they are with conditions dissimilar to carpeting, couches, and climate control. The simple solution is to equip them with appropriate outdoor play apparel – for all seasons – and to take a little time to introduce them to the wonders of nature. Snap photos of insects. Start a rock collection. Plant bulbs to bloom in the spring. Using rocks and sticks, lay trail markers for each other to follow. Name a tree and visit it regularly. This also counters the “There’s nothing to do out there” argument.
“My friends are at music / sports / scouts / religious education”
Many families overschedule after school activities such that the children can only play by advance appointment. Try to coordinate your children’s participation in one – and only one – weekly activity with a neighbor. (Hopefully there is at least some aspect of age-appropriate play involved in the activity.) In the resulting carpool, the children can gain time to trade Knock Knock jokes and their views of life as they ride to and from the activity together.
“All the kids are at aftercare”
The reality of working parents often puts children into similar 9 am to 5 pm patterns, plus commuting time, which barely leaves time for homework, dinner, bath and bedtime. One possible strategy would be to trade after school time with a working parent for weekend time for yourself. In other words, a two-family child care cooperative. Putting in five to ten hours during weekdays, with ample outdoor playtime for everyone, would earn your children some weekend sleepovers. This arrangement requires good friendships among the parents as well as the children and is therefore priceless. If you’re not quite there yet, start with “play dates” on early dismissal days (in exchange for enough time to catch a movie or concert on the weekend) and build your way up.
“I don’t know anyone I can play with”
Sadly, families today often move. Take the initiative to knock on a door or leave a friendly note to get the ball rolling with a newcomer on the block, or if you yourselves are the newcomers. Spend time outside – with bubbles, with a soccer ball – so you and your children can see and be seen. Smile and wave. “Want to play?” comes next. If your neighborhood has a gathering place for children – a playground, a basketball hoop – go there regularly. Friendship is such a strong need for children that it shouldn’t take much effort to happen.
Why Outdoor Play is So Important
There are so many benefits to playing outside with friends that it seems unnecessary to have to argue in favor of it, but here goes.
Imagination and Problem Solving
Outdoor play is characteristically unscripted. Children go out to play. What happens next is totally up to them. Unstructured play gives children invaluable experiences with using their imaginations and practicing the essential skill of solving their own problems. They may take on dramatic roles to play out adventures. They may create architecture from sticks and leaves. Research repeatedly tells us that when they have more recess time, children do better academically. Outdoor play is an investment in the development of the mind.
What better way to learn about our amazing planet, and develop a protective attitude toward it, than to go out and explore it? Children can learn to tell time and compass directions by observing the sun and shadows. Weather and seasons are excellent teachers. Children can learn to anticipate a drizzle by paying attention to clouds. Leaves will flutter as breezes move the rain clouds closer. Wildlife has lessons for children about family life. In the animal world, the same as for humans, parents are responsible for food and shelter for their young until they can manage on their own.
Concerned that children’s health is at risk due to inactivity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only 6% of children ages 9-13 actually play in a typical week. Many children are not getting the recommended daily hour of physical activity. This has contributed to an obesity rate of about 1 in 5 children in the U.S. The great outdoors invites running, climbing, skipping, jumping, bike riding, hula hooping and countless other fun ways to keep growing bodies and brains healthy and strong.
All of the above reasons for playing outside are more easily achieved when a child can do so with a friend. And the reasons for friendship in childhood are undebatable. Essential social skills are honed through the interactions of steady playmates. The ups and downs of long-term friendships help a child learn to negotiate conflicts and to accept differences. Having a friend builds a child’s self-esteem when his ideas are valued and his feelings matter. Having a friend means a child has an ally in adversity and a confidante for his troubles.
In no particular order: Eat your veggies. Brush your teeth. Play outside with a friend.
Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.