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The Competent Parent: Outdoor Play


Outdoor Play


Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My husband and I are having a disagreement about the importance of outdoor play for our children, ages 2, 5 and 7. Maybe it takes a little extra effort to bundle and supervise, even join in, but I seem to recall most of my childhood being spent outside in all kinds of weather.

Ready with Mittens


Dear Ready with Mittens,

I’m with you. A decline in outdoor activity is part of the current trend in childhood obesity/early diabetes.   But that’s only one issue at stake here. Richard Louv provoked a national discussion of what’s missing in children’s lives when they no longer play freely outside. Look for his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Check out http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/children-nature-movement/ for some sound arguments in favor of supporting outdoor play.


An expression more folks need to understand is, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” So for starters, help Dad assess his (and the children’s) wardrobe to see what’s missing to be ready for a variety of weather conditions. Dressing in layers is a smart tip to take you through temperature changes – including body changes as it rises during heavy exercise. If you’re short on mittens and the fresh snow beckons, grab some socks to substitute. Boots may seem like an unnecessary expense – if you’ve fallen into the habit of avoiding wet weather – so either plunge in with a pair for each child or “Macgyver” them with plastic bags and rubber bands over their sneakers.

Next is the question of where to go / what to do. This may be as close as your back yard. All of your children can observe nature and the weather – cloud watching, bird watching, squirrel watching, ant watching, noting changes in the trees each season, etc. Chores and projects for the group could include leaf raking (a short rake or three would be a great investment in your children’s skills and pride in contributing to the common good), gardening (so many benefits to this – I can hardly begin), washing the car (I remember my mother once setting us up with soap and sponges during a summer drizzle) and cleaning the children’s toys (using a wading pool). The older two might enjoy two-player games with a little equipment and simplified rules, such as croquet, or badminton. The two-year-old can join in for simplistic soccer if there’s a ball to kick around. And don’t forget the many benefits of backyard eating – including teaching the children planning skills, food safety (hot things hot, cold things cold), and fire safety if you cook out. Not only does fresh air stimulate the appetite, you don’t have to clean the floor when it’s over.

I have treasured memories of being taken on long walks with my dad. He would take us to a playground, store, or just through the woods. Compared to mom, he had more of a sense of adventure than duty when he was “in charge” of us kids. Characteristically, we’d enjoy each journey as much as the destination. What are some destinations within a reasonable distance of where you live? The youngest would probably appreciate a stroller if he’s too heavy to be backpacked.

It’s true that supervision and “joining in” have become more necessary than in past childhoods. In the past, parents had it easier for many reasons. For one, before the explosion in electricity-dependent and other indoor-only toys, there was more for us to do outside than inside. We made the most of sticks, stones, dirt, and wide open grassy spaces. When I was a child, several backyards on the block had swing sets or sandboxes (ours had both). We pretty much had the run of the block since all the neighbors were friendly with, and trusting of, one another – moving was a rare event. There were enough older children to keep tabs on the younger children, and adult supervision wasn’t required. We had attention from any of the adults on the block, and could expect a band aid or to be fed (with a quick call home) when needed. Nowadays it takes a little effort to create and maintain relationships such that a child can just go out to play without his parent accompanying him. Maybe your family can be the one to start the process.


Dr. Debbie

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at editor@chesapeakefamily.com

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