How Important is Outdoor Play?

I’m sitting here at my desk by the window right now looking out onto a sunny, but chilly, March day. The horses across the road are rolling in the mud from the thunderstorms we had over the weekend and a neighbor is walking her dog along the sidewalk. In a few minutes, one of the morning trains will announce its presence as it speeds along the track that’s probably no more than 50 feet from the corner of our building. The grass is starting to green up. The daffodils are poking their leaves out of the ground, and two little wood ducks have come to settle on what is currently a pond (but is usually just a field). Life is beautiful outside this window and I long to be outside enjoying it all.

But it’s 42 degrees and the wind is at 10-15 MPH…so I convince myself to stay put.

I often talk about our inspiring friend in Minnesota who ventures out in all kinds of weather. She hikes in freezing temps, goes cross-country skiing, and poses for selfies with icicles. Okay, I made that last one up, but nonetheless, she’s a Viking in the truest sense of the word. I mean, her family is actually from Denmark, and if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from reading books like The Year of Living Danishly and There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, it’s that folks who live in or hail from Scandinavian counties have no problems playing outside. In fact, they love it.

Here in America, we tend to be fair-weather fans of the outdoors. If it’s 70-80 degrees outside, the parks are full. If it’s below 40 or over 90, about the only folks you see out are the landscapers and dog walkers. Yes, there are some exceptions to that sweeping generalization, but there is an element of truth to it too. Even those of us who are crazy about being outside just simply don’t go out as much as our Scandinavian counterparts. Nor, do we go out as much as we probably should.

Though I do worry about the big kids (like me and Angie) not getting outside enough, it’s really the little ones that concern me most. In There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, Linda Ã…keson McGurk writes about her experiences as a Scandinavian mom raising her children in the US. There’s a lot of great information in the book (along with a wonderful story), but one of the things that stood out to me most was the amount of time that is recommended for children to play outdoors each day. I’ll spare you the suspense and the guessing games. The answer is 4 to 5 hours. That’s not per week, or per month as my oldest nephew might prefer, but per day.

I’m absolutely certain that when my mom pushed me outside to play every day it was not because she was concerned about my growth and development. It was to get me out of her hair while she went about the business of being a mom. Whatever her logic back then, I’m eternally grateful. I grew up climbing trees, hiking the woods near our neighborhood, biking all over town, and engaging in all manner of imaginative play with my friends. We tested our limits on a daily basis (sometimes even getting into trouble) and came home scraped, bruised, sunburned, bug-bitten, and dirty. I never gave much thought to it until I read There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, but my own outdoor education as a child is probably what instilled in me a love for nature, a willingness to try almost anything, resiliency, and a sense of security.

My family tree is full of young people who have never climbed a real tree, and I have always thought that was sad. My cousins (age 13 and 15) live on the land that my grandparents once farmed. They have acres and acres to roam. I should know. I grew up roaming the same fields and when I went back to visit a few years ago, I roamed them again – picking up buckets of pecans and harvesting wild grapes, while enjoying the sunshine and the breeze. My cousins are not allowed to go outside. They never have been. My uncle is too afraid that they will get hurt. This is an irrational fear that manifests in other areas too – they aren’t allowed to stay home by themselves, use the stove or microwave by themselves, or wait in the car when mom or dad runs an errand. Both are homeschooled and in a few years, we’re going to have two adults emerging into a world that they are unprepared for.

My oldest nephew can tell them all about it. He turned 18 in February and when asked what he wanted, he told his mom he wanted to talk to a counselor. Having started his first job just a few months before, he confided that he was having trouble adjusting to the real world (his words). He had also spent most of his life in his room playing video games and chatting with virtual friends, rather than going outside or engaging with real friends. Though my sister raised both of her children to be independent, she says that she always just thought of her son’s gaming as a hobby, not something that would hamper his ability to function as an adult.

I’m not saying that going outside is the cure for all that ails our culture, but I do think it’s a promising treatment. There’s ample science to back this up and a lot of folks are already starting to take note. Some doctors (my own included) are now prescribing outdoor time for people who are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and more. When I was working to lower my cholesterol naturally, my doc told me to hike more often (she also recommended the Mediterranean diet, which is another subject, but the point is – she didn’t write me a prescription for a statin drug).

Reading There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather has got me energized about getting outside again and I want to grab up all my nieces and nephews (and maybe a cousin or two) and take them camping. Maybe that will actually happen. Maybe it won’t. But, regardless, I’m going outside…whether it’s 42 degrees with a moderate wind or it’s 87 degrees with a chance of rain. Why? Because what was good for me as a kid might just be the very thing I need as an adult to better deal with all that life throws my way each day.

If you want to read a shorter version of the book, here’s a link to an interview with the author in Outside magazine that hits all the highlights. Enjoy!

PS – The day after I finished writing this, Angie and I packed a picnic and headed to the park for a hike. We stopped at the edge of the lake, hoping to take a photo for the cover of this post. As I was stepping to the side of the trail, I saw a set of eyes peeping up from behind a tree. It was a barred owl on the ground. It was obvious he was injured. Angie went back to the car and drove to the ranger station, while I stayed with the little guy (or gal). When the ranger came, she discovered the owl was tangled in fishing line and had broken his leg and wing. She wrapped him in her jacket and we loaned her a basket from our car so that she could carry him back to the station. I sincerely hope they are able to help him.

PSS – When we’re out there enjoying the great outdoors, let’s all try to remember that it is home to many, many wonderful creatures, none of whom carry pocket knives to cut themselves free of the debris we leave behind. So please, leave no trace, do no harm.