By Dr. Scott Sampson
Parenting is arguably a greater challenge now than at any time in the past century. American adults work longer hours than ever before. Dual-career families are the norm. Worried that our kids will be “left behind,” we schedule almost every waking moment of their lives— school, organized sports, music lessons, sleepovers, summer camps—and rack up miles driving them to and fro. Fearing stranger danger, we keep youngsters locked indoors under effective “house arrest.” Whether or not the statistics support the notion that kids are at higher risk of abduction by strangers (they don’t), this media-catalyzed fear is all too real and deserving of empathy.
The demise of outdoor play
One of the greatest casualties of this indoor migration is the most quintessential of childhood activities—outdoor play. Overscheduled kids have no time for it. Over-screened kids opt for virtual worlds invented by others. And overprotected kids are kept inside under constant supervision. As the parent of a 12 year-old girl, I have experienced all of these challenges.
I refer here to real play, or free play. Damming streams, building makeshift forts and dens, holding back the tide with castle walls of sand, creating miniature cities in the garden, being a fireman one minute and Tarzan the next, quickly followed by a super hero—these are the kinds of things that make up real play. It is freely chosen and directed by children, with no external goal or reward. And it often occurs outdoors, immersed in all the “loose pieces” and sensory wonders of the natural world.
If you’re over 40 years of age, chances are your childhood was filled with such unfettered, exuberant play. But today, play is fast becoming a “four-letter word,” equated with wasting time.
The benefits of play
Play researchers adamantly argue that authentic play is (and has always been) the most critical activity of early childhood, and gives children a number of benefits, including:
• Promoting creativity and imagination, problem-solving and higher IQ scores, and emotional and social development.
• Engendering a sense of self and a sense of place, allowing children to recognize both their independence and interdependence.
• Fostering cognitive, emotional, and moral development, especially in outdoor settings.
• Improving such motor skills as balance, coordination, and agility, critical for growing bodies.
Far from being frivolous, play is the fuel that drives healthy brain development, and the very crucible of learning.
So how do we then foster outdoor play while minimizing risks and managing our fears?
1. Practice “hummingbird parenting.” We’ve all heard about helicopter parents, incessantly hovering over their kids, protecting them from any danger. Most of us have an intuitive sense that the helicopter approach isn’t the best way to oversee children, given their growing need for autonomy.
But what’s the alternative? Parent and blogger Michele Whitaker offers a potent alternative—“hummingbird parenting.” Beginning around five or six years of age, children long for some more separation and independence from grown-ups. One of the greatest challenges for parents and other caregivers is to honor this need, fighting the urge to be ever present.
Becoming a hummingbird parent means giving kids space and autonomy to take risks, staying on the periphery sipping nectar most of the time and zooming in only when necessary. If the idea of hanging back makes you nervous, start off close, slowly work your way back, and see how it feels. Monitor how the children are feeling about your distance too. As they get older, increase that separation so as to give kids the freedom to take bigger risks, make some mistakes, and deal with consequences.
In short, the goal should not be to eliminate risk. Children need to learn how to deal with risky circumstances, or face much larger consequences as inexperienced adolescents and adults.
2. Schedule unstructured play. By scheduling in nature play, and developing your flight skills as a hummingbird parent, you can find ways to keep kids safe while allowing them to take appropriate risks and push limits. If we’re successful, the end result will be another generation of confident, free-range kids! Encourage kids to create their own imaginative games and activities, preferably using readily available natural elements—loose parts like water, sticks, dirt, and rocks. Feel free to gather up some of these loose parts or, better yet, have the kids do it. Bigger elements, such as large sticks, can be used for creating makeshift structures, like forts or bridges. Smaller items can be used in an almost infinite array of activities.
3. Let kids engage fully with nature. Too often these days, a child’s encounters with nature are dominated by a look-but-don’t-touch directive. Fearing that we must protect nature and our kids at all cost, we often do far more harm than good. Nature connection depends on firsthand, multisensory encounters. It’s a messy, dirty business—picking leaves and flowers, turning over rocks, holding wriggling worms, and splashing in ponds. Rather than saying “no” every time a child wants to pick up a stick, throw a rock, climb a tree, or jump into the mud, take a deep breath and cheer them on instead. Remember, clothes can be washed, and cuts heal.
Nature connection is a contact sport, and both kids and nature can take it!
About Dr. Scott Sampson
Scott Sampson is Vice President of Research and Collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He also serves as host and science advisor of the hit PBS KIDS series, Dinosaur Train, and is author of the new book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature.