I remember my oldest son, Tynan’s, first hike on his own two legs. He was two years old and forced to walk because his new baby brother was now in my child carrier. Imagine my complete surprise and elation when he did an easy 2.6 kilometres to Bertha Falls in Waterton Lakes National Park all on his own! Not only that, but he also did the whole hike with no shoes and no pants. Fast forward to now, and he’s still hiking up a storm.
I knew long before having kids that I wanted to raise outdoors children. Kids who have years of memories of trails, waterfalls, lakes and snowy days. As they grow, so does my passion about outdoor play for children.
North Americans have been seeing a decline in children’s time outdoors over the course of the last few decades. In decades past, kids grew up playing in the backyard or at the park, but the trend has shifted as kids spend more time in front of screens or have limited access to safe outdoor spaces.
The pandemic created great challenges for parents and children. In a 2020 ParticipACTION survey, Canadian children earned an ‘D+’ in meeting physical activity requirements. Prior to the pandemic, 15 per cent of children (ages 5-17) met recommended guidelines. This number dropped to just 5.6 per cent during Covid-19 restrictions.
As the pandemic continued, families began to explore the outdoors. According to Outdoor Play Canada, families rediscovered walking and cycling, schools found ways to do outdoor learning, and campsite reservations increased dramatically.
This is great news as active outdoor play is associated with many benefits such as improved social skills, motor skill development, healthier body weight and decreasing odds of developing chronic disease.
The science is showing that outdoor play not only provides physical benefits, but it provides cognitive benefits as well.
One review published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health showed that time spent in nature positively affects the mental health of children and teens. There is some research to support that time spent in nature can improve emotional well-being and attention deficit disorder/hyperactivity disorder.
“Outdoor free play is essential for healthy child development, with positive impacts on social skills, imagination, executive function, problem-solving ability, resiliency and other indicators of physical, mental, and social health,” said Dr. Mark Tremblay, who chairs Outdoor Play Canada and is a senior scientist at the CHEO Research Institute.
Tremblay was one of many leaders who guided the development of the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth. These guidelines for children and youth aged 5-17 years recommend 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, several hours of a variety of structured and unstructured light physical activities, and no more than two hours per day of recreational screen time.
As an educator and mother, I’m seeing a big shift toward a focus on time outdoors. It’s hard to ignore the science about how much our children benefit from hours outside. It seems like every year a plethora of new books come out advocating for our kids need for time outdoors.
While Tynan set the bar high on that pant-less and shoeless day, we’ve had our ups and downs on the trails. I continue to hit the trails with my boys because I know it will help their physical and emotional well-being. And if it gets them to one day hike the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland with me, I wouldn’t complain, either.
Tips to Get Children Outside
The science shows the physical and mental benefits of outdoor play, so how can parents encourage their kids to get out there?
Have a mix of child-led and adult-led activities
Take turns when it comes to selecting activities. Children need to have an interest in the activity they do but also need to be pushed out of their comfort zones. Maybe one day the parents choose to do a hike, and the next, the kids choose a bike ride to a playground.
Maybe the routine is a walk after dinner, outdoor play after school, weekend family hikes or an annual camping trip. Make getting outdoors (no matter the weather) part of your family routine.
Dress for the Weather
Nothing will stop an outing faster than being cold or wet. The popular Scandinavian saying “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing” absolutely applies, especially in Canada. Remember your layers (base, fleece, shell). Read more tips from Explore on How to Stay Warm on Winter Adventures.
Along those lines, it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed when getting outside with kids. As they move, they may shed layers, but they’ll be happier if they’re warm.
Set Realistic Expectations
While we want to push our children to build their resilience and their physical capacities, it’s also important to go into any activity with realistic expectations. Don’t get too set on reaching a specific end goal. If you’re hiking and have to call it and turn around before reaching the summit, that’s okay.
Find Local Outdoors Opportunities
Don’t look at social media and think you need to spend every weekend hiking, skiing, or canoeing with your kids. Find outdoor play spots close to home to increase your time outdoors; a creek, pond or forested area will provide hours of fun.
Track Your Hours
Want to encourage your child to increase their time outdoors? Try the 1000 Hours Outside tracker. This challenge is to spend 1000 hours outdoors in one year. There is an app to track time or an engaging colourful chart you can download from their website.
Prepare for Tantrums/Meltdowns
If you have young children (or even teens), you should prepare for an inevitable melt down once in a while. In this case, you need to mentally prepare yourself and tell yourself that these will happen from time to time. Resolve to weather through these and focus on the fun—don’t let them deter you from trying.
Quick Tip for Teens
If you can, allow your teen to invite a friend on outdoor excursions. Your teen is more likely to enjoy the experience if shared with a friend.
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