Take your children outside! Here’s why.

Most of my favorite childhood moments took place outside. I remember hours of playing with neighborhood children — skating, riding bikes, playing hopscotch, and acting out stories around my swing set and playhouse. Other happy hours were spent with my grandfather in his beloved organic garden, finding sowbugs, enjoying kumquats, green onions, fresh tomatoes, corn, peaches, and more.
Children outside in art — Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent

Best of all were the hours of solitary delight in the front or back yard — bouncing a super ball, endlessly hitting a tennis ball against the side of the house (how did my grandparents tolerate that?), walking the cinderblock walls that divided all the yards in the neighborhood, weaving daisy (or clover) chains, and climbing trees or onto the roof of the garage in order to read.

As I grew older, nature was a place of spiritual growth as I meditated on the wonder and beauty of creation. George Washington Carver said, “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in,” and that’s what it has always seemed to me.

Is there really time to spend outside?

Our boys were outside a lot before we began homeschooling, but once they reached school age, I started wondering if we still had time for unstructured play. Even though I was knew how much I’d learned outside of school, it was hard to shake memories of twelve years confinement in a classroom. Wasn’t that an inevitable part of schooling? Being outdoors seemed healthy, normal, and even beneficial to concentration, coordination, and observational skills, but the “spozed to” elves* (STEs) kept hinting that education really shouldn’t include anything so simple and fun.

To hush those pesky STEs, I started looking for concrete reasons why children should or should not spend extensive time out of doors. I found several. The reasons that seemed most compelling were:

  • Being outside is good for general health and physical and mental development.
    • Outdoor activities can help develop gross and fine motor skills, common sense, coordination, cooperation with others, creativity, and physical competence.
    • Being outside can increase focus for students with ADHD and other disorders, and the simple act of getting dirty helps develop strong immune systems. You can read more, including information about the science behind the necessity for outdoor experience in the eye-opening Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder and in the articles below.
  • Being outside fosters creativity.
    • The biographies or memoirs of many great writers, composers, artists, statesmen, and thinkers reveal that most took time for at least a daily walk outdoors. For these creative and productive people, outdoor time fostered creativity and relieved stress.
    • In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes his favorite kind of day as including a long walk from 2 p.m. until time for tea at 4:15 p.m (p. 142). Many other historical examples attest to the value of time spent outdoors.
    • Outdoor time has been fruitful for creativity and focus in my personal life and work. There are very few writer’s blocks that a good walk can’t cure! 
    • At the very minimum, an outdoor view, especially into a green space or sky, helps to relieve stress, and stress is often an obstacle to creativity or learning. 
  • Real experiences begin the process of mimetic learning.
    • Classical mimetic learning may be described as a process of perceiving (taking in information through the senses), absorbing (seeing something for what it is — e. g. a rose, rather than simply a red, fragrant, soft yet thorny object), understanding through the study of types (a rose as a type of flower; a rosebush as a type of plant, etc.), and finally, expressing or applying the idea in the student’s own words.
    • I would suggest that the wider a student’s sensory experience, the more easily he or she will progress through the other levels of learning. Virtual experiences simply can’t compete. Einstein said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” and I believe that to be true.
  • Nature — what we can see — is an intimation of things we cannot see.
    •  . . . Earth’s crammed with heaven,
      And every common bush afire with God;
      But only he who sees, takes off his shoes . . .
      From Aurora Lee by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Charlotte Mason offers guidance on outdoor time for children

Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.
Juvenal, Satires

Home Education is the first volume in Charlotte Mason's homeschooling series. It was tremendously freeing when I discovered Charlotte Mason’s books and discovered that she strongly recommended generous amounts of outdoor time for children (Home Education, Part II: “Out-of-Door Life for Children”, pp. 42-95). In the early years, she suggests that “a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air.”

After the first six years, she advises that 4-6 hours a day should be spent outdoors, as long as the weather is “tolerably fine.” She offers guidance for ways to spend some of time so that it will be a fruitful learning time, though she repeats her familiar caution against mothers talking too much.

Miss Mason recommends that students should learn to see purposefully, and be able to clearly describe what they see. Not only because seeing with purpose and describing with accuracy are useful skills in many professions, but also because there is beauty and wonder for those who have eyes to see. Mason declares,

“This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment,— when they ask, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What is it for?’ And she is training her children in truthful habits, by making them careful to see the fact and to state it exactly, without omission or exaggeration.” [Emphasis added.]

Miss Mason also suggest that winter walks are as necessary as summer walks:

All we have said hitherto applies to the summer weather, which is, alas for us! a very limited and uncertain quantity in our part of the world. The question of out-of-door exercise in winter and in wet weather is really more important; for who that could would not be abroad in the summertime? If the children are to have what is quite the best thing for them, they should be two or three hours every day in the open air all through winter, say an hour and a half in the morning and as long in the afternoon.

What is there to do out of doors?

Two Little Savages provides many ideas for playing outdoors.The goal for much of a young person’s outdoor time is unstructured, imaginative play. This can be encouraged by reading widely — everything from fables and fairy tales to stories of outdoor adventure and delight.

Old books are usually best for this, as they illustrate a historically normal picture of things children can and did do outside. This type of play can include riding bikes, building things, swinging, climbing, digging, running, jumping, marbles, and almost anything else that can be connected with whatever story is playing out in their heads.

Imaginative play is almost always connected to story (I’d say always because I’ve observed or experienced anything else, but I suppose anything is possible). The story may be be a series of disjoined scenes focused on role-playing — cowboy or cowgirl, knight, princess, fire fighter, pilot, or storybook character, or an elaborate ongoing scenario in which each person plays a specific role.

This type of play is fed not only through fiction, but also through history, nature study, and family outdoor experiences such as camping, hikes, museum visits, beach trips, and landscape or remodeling projects, or whatever else you do. All of life is grist for the creative mill.

One of the books that my sons wore to shreds was Two Little Savages by Ernest Thompson Seton. It is the “story of two boys who lived as Indians and what they learned.” The story was engaging, but what made the book an ever-present companion was the hand-drawn illustrations that showed how to do everything from making plant dyes to using an axe correctly. Children desire to know and to do real things, and books such as Two Little Savages feeds those desires in a healthy way.*

If you haven’t spent much time in old children’s books, you are likely to be surprised at how capable and resourceful children were expected to be. Remember the Bible stories of Joseph and David tending the family flocks alone while still very young? Those stories and countless others written as recently as the first half of the twentieth century illustrate a far richer, more responsible, and more complex way of life than the sedentary indoor lifestyle that is the norm for so many children in the developed world.

Just go outside — it really is good for the soul

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.
John Muir, Our National Parks

There are many things that can make it hard to be outdoors, but in answer to the question of whether there really is time available to spend outside, I’d suggest that we make time for things we believe important. The more I learned about the importance of children’s time spent in nature and in imaginative play, the more I was convicted that it was necessary to make time for it. We skipped other things in order to create a simple, home-centered life that made it possible.

Mothers outside: Miss Mason clearly expects that mothers will spend at least a little time outside, modeling what it looks like to be a student of the outdoors. If all you can do is an after-lunch read-aloud on a blanket under a tree or an evening walk, that is better than nothing.

Even if you’re busy, try to take at least a few moments outside every single day. Even though I’d grown up loving to be outside, I often let myself be wimpy when the boys were young and the weather was unpleasant. I wasn’t the best model of fortitude, unfortunately, and I missed a lot of beauty and contemplation as a result.

There is nothing in the world more peaceful than apple-leaves with an early moon.
Alice Meynell

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher shows a healthy outdoor life for a child.If you are fearful about letting your children play outside, you might find the story, Understood Betsy helpful. This was one of my childhood favorites — one of the 1001 good books worth reading at any age. It’s not just a great story, though. It’s a clear look at the consequences of disordered affection and the beautifully redeeming effect of wholesome activity and properly ordered affection in Betsy’s life.

For parents, the first chapter or two can serve as a manual for what not to do, and the rest of the book as a model for healthy relationships. I recommend it as a read-aloud.

The reluctant child: A child who hasn’t spent time outdoors may not know what to do outside, and may not want to go at first. Young people who are addicted to screen time may also be reluctant to go outside. However, if you let them know that the alternative is extra chores, going outside might become a more attractive option;-). I

f my boys ever said they were bored, I would cheerfully say, “Oh good! I have a few extra chores that need to be done, although they can wait until you get back in if you have something to do outside.” That was usually enough to send them sprinting for the door, where they inevitably found something to do.

One final reason to spend time outside — someday it will be impossible because of illness or old age. If things go as they usually do, the moment you realize you cannot go out, you will want to more than anything. I recently saw a cartoon that depicted a very old man sitting indoors, realizing he had read all the comics, played all the games, and seen all the movies, but never actually had a life. Living and teaching in a classically Charlotte Mason way can help to keep that from happening.

I am not bound for any public place, but for ground of my own where I have planted vines and orchard trees, and in the heat of the day climbed up into the healing shadow of the woods. 
Wendell Berry

*Spozed-to elves (STEs): These are the voices that greet any deviation from what “everyone else is doing” with alarm and ask, “Aren’t you supposed to . . .?” STEs are a lot like mosquitos—they may not have the power or authority to keep you from doing what you need or want to do, but if not ignored or dealt with, they can distract or discourage you until you give up. If you are doing things that matter, keep the end in mind and minimize contact with joy-stealing STEs.

**If you decide to purchase Two Little Savages for your children, I strongly recommend purchasing the paperback version because it’s a book that needs to be taken outside and used, not just read.

Further reading:

Here are a few short articles you may find interesting.

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv eloquently expresses the benefits of taking children outside. Don’t Be a Stick in the Mud: Why You Should Let Your Kids Get Dirty and Kids Need Room to Roam: Tips on Taking Your Little Ones Camping — from The Art of Manliness.

Benefits of Taking Kids Outside — A helpful PDF from Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Let your kids get dirty! — An article by Katie Fox on The Art of Simple.

Is Dirt Good for Kids? Are parents keeping things too clean for their kids’ good? — An article on WebMD.

13 Remarkable Health Benefits of Getting Outdoors from Julie Singh of the Trip Outside blog

Your New Year’s Resolution To Get Outside More – 26 Ideas from A-Z. — An article from the National Wildlife Federation.

For a bit of delight, here is a walking tour of C. S. Lewis and Inklings-related spots in Oxford, complete with quotes from the writings of various Inklings: C. S. Lewis Walking Tour of Oxford Centre.

If you’re intimidated by the thought of starting a nature notebook, here’s an easy way to start recording observations.

If you’d like to read more about mimetic learning, Circe Institute’s website and blog have a number of good articles on the subject.


5 Responses

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