Sunday, September 25, 2011

15 Minutes Outside

I've been paging through Rebecca P. Cohen's new book, 15 Minutes Outside: 365 ways to get out of the house and connect with your kids. There is plenty of research finding that getting outdoors can boost one's mood, and kids who spend time outdoors are highly likely to get more physical activity than those who don't. So those are two big reasons to get out there.

Of course, the question for modern children, accustomed to video games and such, is what you do once you get outside. One can always hit the playground, and we do this fairly frequently. But this is often not terribly relaxed, partly because of the Intense Other Parent Factor (at a playground just outside Washington DC earlier today, I kept having parents apologize for their 2 and 3-year-olds taking our ball, as if children that age have much concept of other people's stuff anyway. Sometimes I want to hang a sign saying "Chill out! I'm not going to judge you!") Cohen's book lists hundreds of activities for kids to do outside during all types of weather. The idea is that once you get them started on something, they'll probably come up with something else, and eventually move to the unstructured free play that is the holy grail of child development.

Among my favorite ideas:

* Do homework outside. If you have to do a boring worksheet, it's still better while lying on a blanket on the grass.
* Find wonder in a small pail. Have kids collect whatever they like (blades of grass, acorns, etc). in a pail and then look at them under a magnifying glass.
* Give your kid a place to dig. Digging is just plain fun. So why not give kids a patch of dirt in the backyard where they can go to town?
* Play leaf tic-tac-toe with autumn leaves of the same color as Xs or Os. Or just use different species of trees at any point in the year.
* Track an animal. A lost human skill, if you think about it.
* Get the kids to weed and rake!

Of course, by the time you get to 365, some ideas seem not so fabulous. It also bothers me that Cohen buys, hook-line-and-sinker, into the idea that picky eaters will eat their vegetables if they plant them themselves. It's fine to keep a garden if you're into it, and kids often like plucking tomatoes and peppers and the like. But my own experience with this is the exact opposite of her claim that "One of the best things is to get your kids involved in growing and harvesting the vegetables. They are more willing to try new foods if they can proudly boast, 'I grew that!'" Maybe if you don't have a truly picky eater. But despite this as an overarching theme of essays in numerous parenting and women's magazines, I'm not convinced it's the case. My 2-year-old eats lots of things and eats the tomatoes we grow. My 4-year-old loves picking tomatoes, but will not eat them, or our acorn squash, no matter how many bushels he picks. Picky eating is not really about your parenting (or you wouldn't have kids in the same family behaving so differently). It's about some kids being more sensitive to tastes than others.

But I digress. In general, coming up with ideas of stuff to do with kids is tough. It's always easier to turn on the TV, but watching television for hours isn't terribly fulfilling, and probably won't create the kind of memories that splashing in mud puddles will. So it's good to read a book reminding us that the latter is an option.

(Cross-posted at


Susan said...

If you read Richard Louv's book, The Nature Principle, where he talks about loose parts theory, taking your child outside is about a lot more than fresh air and exercise. Brilliant minds like Godel and Einstein were known to take a walk around Princeton each morning. It's a great read and makes you really think about some of our practices around keeping kids inside for most of their learning time except when they're outside on really expensive (for many places unaffordable) playground equipment.

Anonymous said...

It is mildly shocking to see the lack of interest in and knowledge about basic nature in our kids' friends and classmates. They seem afraid of getting dirty, have no curiosity about insects (indeed most fear them,) and exhibit astonishing lack of awareness of the natural world outside their doorstep. My kids have found very few peers who share their love for outside play. And this not in an urban area, but a part of the country known for its varied, year-round outdoor activities.

On another note, don't give up on the influence of the garden. My super-picky eater is 9 now, and while he still avoids eating most of the harvest, he does try things more often, and I believe him when he lists peas as his favorite veggie, even though he will only eat the ones that grow in the backyard, for 2 weeks of the year.

amandadonnelly said...

I take my daughter on regular walks through our state park, which happens to be at the end of our block. We have found a place to go sledding, trees to climb, materials for building a wigwam, a tortoise, a snake, someone's swing that they made from vines, a fort someone built out of branches, two trees that through erosion we've learned are attached at the roots (so I guess it's really only one tree), a place she's pretty sure could be a fairy home, a homeless person's tent, and on and on and on. The list of things we've both learned on these walks is endless...