How to Play Outside: 4 Lessons Learned from a One-Year-Old

Or, Things I Learn from My Kids, Vol. 2

4 things my kids taught me

I have three girls and one boy, all very energetic. Before my son was born, my girls gave me a constant run for my money. They never stopped moving, talking, eating, playing, fighting. I could barely keep up with them, and when well-meaning observers would say, "At least they're not boys. Then you'd really be in trouble!", I would always think, these girls are just as wild as boys. 

Then I found out that my fourth child would be a son. I was a little nervous to say the least. I thought, if I make girls who are as busy as boys, what on earth will my son be like? Some sweet friend tried to console me by saying, "Well, maybe since your girls are so active, your boy will be calm." 

I wasn't really buying it, but since my husband has always been pretty laid back, part of me held onto the tiniest sliver of hope that our son might just turn out the same way. 

No such luck. 

This one-year-old monkey, er, I mean darling child, is off the charts busy. He started climbing before he could crawl and he climbs everything. He has the upper body strength of a gorilla. He does chin ups on door handles. He rearranges the furniture so he can climb onto every available surface. He was scaling the playpen before he could walk. He can open and empty every drawer in our kitchen in the time it takes me to check our meal plan and see what's for dinner. God help you if you accidentally forget to close the bathroom door. 

So needless to say, I've spent the past year learning a lesson that probably every mom who ever had a son has learned: we need to be outside!

Since we started getting outside more, I've realized that there is a direct correlation between how much time we spend outside and my sanity. All those days I spent running behind him through the house, picking up every mess he created (at four times my speed, naturally), sweeping up everything he broke, trying to keep him safe...it was driving me nuts! 

But when we're outside, it's a different story. The messes he makes are with rocks and dirt. I'm totally cool with that. The things he breaks are blades of grass and weeds growing in the garden. Score! The things that catch his attention are the slide and the sprinkler. Hello, lawn chair!

This probably isn't surprising to anyone who knows they have outdoorsy kids, but if you're in the same boat as me, where all of your previous kids liked to make their noise and messes by singing, dancing, and staging plays in the warm comfort of the family room, and you've suddenly got a kid who makes being in the house chaotic, read on!

I'd gotten used to staying inside; my girls are wild, but I guess they manage to contain it. They're loud and dramatic, and they like jumping on beds and building forts, but they'd really rather stay warm, dry, and clean. I'd forgotten the joy of being outside, but as I lean in deeper to my son's need for nature, he's helping me re-learn how to play outside and have a great time. 

"...as I lean in deeper to my son's need for nature, he's helping me re-learn how to play outside and have a great time."

Here then, are the top four things my one-year-old has taught me about playing outside:

1. Play outside whenever you can

The entrance to our backyard is through a door in our laundry room, which I look directly into as I sit at my desk working. Whenever my son is in the room with me, he pounds on that door, indicating that he'd rather be playing in the yard. And no matter how long we stay out there, he screams when I pick him up to come inside. I honestly believe he would rather live out there!

Sure, sometimes going outside conflicts with my schedule or my idea of what I was going to spend my time doing, but in a way, I think he has this one figured out better than I do. 

As soon as I'm out there, I feel the tension in my body noticeably dissipate. I breathe in the fresh air and my energy levels soar. The abundance of life, as evidenced by the plants bursting forth everywhere--even the weeds--fills me up. 

He runs, plays, laughs, explores. He spends an hour running his fingers through the light mist of the sprinkler, another going down his little slide built into the side of a tiny hill. 

Every time he bangs on that door, I try to remind myself to listen to him, to go outside, even if just for ten minutes. The computer won't go anywhere. The notepad will wait. If we have a chance to connect with the beauty of creation, we should take it!

Play outside like a toddler on the loose: 4 ways to act like a child

2. Invite your neighbours to play outside with you

So, now that we're outside way more, my girls reluctantly follow, not wanting to be left alone in the house. But something about playing outside alone just doesn't do it for them. As soon as they're out there, they want to go and find some people to invite into the backyard. And not just kids, but pets and parents, too. Sometimes I'll go into my backyard and half the neighbourhood is playing in our treehouse, lining up to use the zip line. (We were blessed to move into a house that came with a stellar yard). 

I love this. I love it that my neighbours feel comfortable coming into our yard to play, even if I'm not out there. I love that my kids feel totally comfortable inviting these people to visit, to make use of our resources, to share in our blessings. Sometimes we'll even be outside eating dinner on the back deck and a kid will wander in, parent following dutifully behind, and our kids will convince them to join us. This is one of my favourite things about being outside: we're getting to know our neighbours and finding opportunities to bless and be blessed by them. 

3. Wonder about everything

Do you ever go for a walk in an area that you normally only drive through and realize that there are so many things you've never noticed before? A garden here, a tennis court there. Maybe a business that never caught your eye as you sped past. In fact, every time I go for a walk, I notice so many things all around me that I've never tuned into before that it makes me feel cheated when I'm in the car.  Just what might I be missing out on this time?

How much more so do we notice details when we spend a good amount of time playing in one garden? My three-year-old is the one responsible for this lesson; she is so curious! Every time we're outside, she wants to know about everything: What plant is this? Can we eat it? How does it grow? When will it be done growing? Why are you digging up the soil? What is that tool called? Can I try it?

She eagerly plunges her hands into the soil to see what it feels like. She picks flowers for me every day and wants to know all about them. She has to stop and blow on every dandelion she sees. (Cue the distraction from Mommy: "Oh look! A puppy!")

I'm not going to lie; sometimes the questions are a bit much, especially when I have all three girls peppering me with them. But I love that curiosity--it's something I tend to leave behind. I take things for granted now, never bothering to question 'what is this?' or 'what is that?' Not knowing something rarely bothers me. I usually feel like my head is so crammed full of useless information, I don't need to add anything else non-essential. 

But I think we miss out on so much when we repress our child-like curiosity. Even in our own backyards there are entire ecosystems operating, and we kind of just ignore them. When my older girls tried to create a field guide to our yard as a science project this year, I was embarrassed by how few of our plants I could identify. "That's the one with sharp, pointy leaves." "That's the one that looks like rhubarb, but isn't." What surprised me more than my ignorance was the fact that I'd never really thought about it before. 

So now, as I play outside with my kids, I'm trying to embrace their natural curiosity and learn from it. It's a fascinating world out there if we take the time to explore it. 

Playing outside: exploring the beauty all around you
Playing outside: exploring the beauty all around you
Playing outside: exploring the beauty all around you
Playing outside: exploring the beauty all around you

4. Find your family's best park

A few months ago, we tried to have a family picnic at a playground. It was a disaster. Little man would not sit still for a moment and insisted on running off every five seconds. We were at a beautiful playground, but it's very open and the grassy areas are very hilly. I'm pretty sure that at no point were my husband and I both sitting on the picnic blanket.

After that, I was a little park-shy. Why would I go somewhere so open with a toddler who enjoys running off, when I could stay in a fenced-in yard that's just the perfect size for him? 

And then I discovered "our park." It's perfect for our family. It has three areas--not including the swings--and each one caters to a different age group, so there is one for our toddler, one for our preschooler, and one for our older girls. All of them are appropriately challenging and unique in their designs. The ground is made from recycled tires, but even better than that, it's all enclosed, so the kids can run around freely and feel independent, and I don't have to freak out the whole time, anxious that somebody is missing. 

Finding this park was a game-changer for me because it made taking my kids outside to play fun again. There's a great place we can go that they all love and I can relax and let them play, exploring their own boundaries in a safe environment. You have to recognize the needs and limitations of your family and work within them. Trying to fit your family into activities that aren't working is a sure way to make everyone feel miserable.

If you haven't found the best park for your family yet, hope over to your city's website and do some research. I found this one through our city's tourism magazine.

So how about you? What do you love most about playing outside with your kids? What do you struggle with? Leave a comment below and let me know! I love hearing from you.

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