If you’re ever trying to find my house and you can’t remember the street number, just listen out for the sounds of shrieking and roaring children coming from my backyard. (Are they happy? Are they hurt? Who can say!) Most of the time my kids love to engage in independent, outdoor play on their own. Sometimes they need a little coaxing. But once they get into it they can spend hours out there defending their fortresses, racing in bike rally championships and making leaf and mud bird nests.
How did we get here? It’s taken a lot of trial and error, one broken bone, lots of blood and bucket loads of consistency.
If you’d like to encourage your kids to love independent, outdoor play, read on for my best tips!
There are many benefits to kids having independent, outdoor play
For one thing, moving across uneven surfaces greatly improves the sense of balance and gross motor skills. So much of life as a kid is carried out in flat, controlled spaces. It does them so much good to have space where they can roam and run and fall and test their own limits.
The thought of children testing their own limits can feel unnerving. I felt terrible when my daughter fell out of a tree in our backyard, giving herself a concussion and a broken arm. Maybe I shouldn’t have let her climb the trees, I thought to myself.
So it was a huge relief when two nurses and a doctor told my daughter that she shouldn’t stop climbing trees, and that broken bones are just part of being a kid.
A couple of days after the fall, we were able to have a great conversation with her about what caused the fall and how to improve her climbing strategy for next time (I may have a little experience in the tree climbing area…).
When we give our kids a bit more space to play and explore outside, they also learn useful problem-solving skills, which improve resilience.
And of course, long hours outside provide great fodder for imaginative play.
The first step is to make sure your backyard is set up for play
Of course, very few of us will have the luxury of removing every dangerous thing from the backyard – we don’t have the space!
I’ve found the key here is setting boundaries (and enforcing them!) early on so that our kids learn what they are and are not allowed to do.
For example, they are allowed to climb the trees as high as the fence line, but no higher. But they are not allowed to call out to strangers over the fence (our property backs onto a popular thoroughfare) without me or my husband in the backyard.
Enforcing new boundaries feels frustrating and tiring at first. But we’ve found making the effort to put clear boundaries in place early on has made things easier in the long run. (Somehow we still need to enforce the “don’t hit each other with sticks” rule on the regular!)
Another part of setting up the space for play is to make sure there are some things for them to do! Some great backyard toys that can be used in many different ways include scooters, balls, hula hoops, skipping ropes and trucks.
Lead by example – show them that you enjoy being outside
If being outside feels almost like a punishment – something the kids have to do while the grownups stay inside and have all the fun – your kids probably won’t want to do it of their own accord!
As parents, we have an opportunity to introduce new and exciting things to our kids. So get everyone outside and then stay there for a while. Find some things you like to do outside, and let them see you enjoying it.
Gradually start to remove yourself
Get them involved in something fun, like kicking a ball around, and then excuse yourself to do something in another part of the backyard.
Next, you can briefly go inside to get a hat or a drink bottle.
Over time, you can make these trips inside take longer and longer, so your child gets used to confidently playing by themselves or with their siblings.
You don’t have to do it exactly like that. The idea is to get them used to be alone for longer and longer stretches of time, in a way that feels natural to them. In other words, you want to train them without making them feel like they’re being trained.
Seeing my kids play happily outside brings me joy every day, whether I’m out there with them or watching from a window. It’s a joy to see them enjoying the outdoors and each other’s company. And it’s a joy to have a quiet moment to make a phone call, send an email or wipe down the bench.
Like anything worth doing in parenting, it wasn’t easy. But training our kids to love independent play outdoors has been good for all of us.