We don’t have a whole lot of toys for our kids – I mean we have enough, but it is our goal to keep their numbers relatively small, not only to avoid clutter but also to create a space where the children are not constantly over-stimulated with the objects put in front of them. This especially goes for the electronic toys, of which we have not more than one or two. Instead, our kids, our oldest one especially, spend an enormous amount of time outside, especially now that the days are getting irresistibly warmer.
I have spoken of the importance of natural places before, so when I mean “outside,” I don’t mean a playground where they would be provided with a pre-defined set of activities, such as swinging, sliding, and so on. While all of these have a place in a healthy childhood, they are not a replacement for the spaces that are at least somewhat wild, where the child’s imagination is stimulated to create amusements on its own.
Josie will be going to a Waldorf school in the fall, and hours of undirected outside play represent one of the important tenets of the Waldorf method where kindergartners are concerned. I couldn’t be happier, because this is exactly the form of education I want for my children at this age – not learning how to write or read or do worksheets or sit quietly in rows until the little monsters inside them explode into the educator’s face, and deservedly so.
Outside is just so important to little kids, folks. They have to have an ample space to run wild and make noise and rumpus completely unselfconsciously, and God forbid you waste any of your mental energy worrying about them becoming dirty in the process – and I mean, dripping, filthy dirty, covered in all sorts of stuff. The haunting, archetypal classic Where the Wild Things Are illustrates succinctly how children naturally possess a longing for wild places and for imaginative play, which, when provided, ultimately tame their inner wild things, making them ready for the safety and the comfort of your loving arms.
It is during such outdoor time that they are able to explore, undirected, the environment around them.
It nurtures their curiosity…
It fosters the ability to observe and to pay attention – a rare and precious thing in our age of technology and over-stimulation, don’t you think?
So many things to see…
Like a neighbor on a tractor!
It also allows for important life skills to be acquired from an early age – this two-year-old knows how to remove his own burdock from his clothes!
Burdock is a real plague on our farm, by the way.
There are other reasons, too. If it is not already an integral part of your life as it is of ours, going outside will also help you become more attuned to the rhythm of the seasons. Right now, for instance, the birds are all coming back to Wisconsin to nest, and the return of the phoebe is as important of an event as the appearance of the first strawberry in the garden. Why is this important? Because learning to notice these kinds of seasonal changes by paying attention to the birds and the plants in their habitat is a valuable exercise in opening up the senses and sharpening that ever-elusive ability to focus.
To illustrate: here is a cardinal on a branch – we hear him before we see him. We also recognize many other birds that we do not actually see – I am yet to locate it, but I know that a meadowlark has returned to the vicinity of my farm, for for days he has been delighting us with his rich, loud song. The aptly-named meadowlarks love the kind of open meadows and pastures that make up my farm.
Finally, spending an ample amount of time outdoors can and will foster a degree of environmental awareness. I am acutely aware, for instance, of the fact that the dramatic shrinkage of their habitat has caused these very meadowlarks to become increasingly rare in our area, and that having one nest nearby is a special thing, an experience to treasure, something that might just not be there tomorrow, for you never know when the familiar meadowlark of today becomes the passenger pigeon of yesteryear. Sharing this kind of knowledge, reverence, and appreciation for the natural world is, in my opinion, a crucial educational task.
So, my advice to you, turn off the electronics and head out, but not for a yoga class or music lessons or even the library. In our culture, we tend to believe that the activity is only beneficial if it is in some way managed, but that, my friends, is a fallacy. Head outdoors instead – a park, a farm, or your friends’ back forty – anything will work.