By Robin Fawcett
What if one of the most powerful things you could do as a parent was also one of the simplest?
As a family doctor – and a mom of two boys – I know how challenging the early parenting years can feel. New mothers are overwhelmed by (often conflicting) expert advice about exactly how we should feed/sleep/discipline/teach these tiny people, often while feeling emotionally unsupported and exhausted ourselves.
My first son, Henry, was born when I was a third-year resident near Washington DC. When Henry was 13 months old, we moved to London, England; I went from full-time doctor to full-time mom, and I suddenly had a lot more time to think about how to raise our son. My medical background had alerted me to concerning trends in both the US and the UK: rising levels of childhood overweight and obesity; alarming increases in mental health problems in adolescents and young people; increasing percentages of children with developmental delays and sensory disorders.
Parenting in a new culture is a great excuse to think critically about best practices. One of the surprises for me was the European focus on getting children outside in nature. As I began reading about Scandinavian outdoor preschools and German forest kindergartens, I found startling connections between environment and health. Spending time in nature – woods, gardens, fields, beaches – has been valued as promoting good health in ancient cultures around the world, perhaps most famously the practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” in Japan.
Good doctor that I am, I decided to use my own toddler as a guinea pig. I bought waterproof winter gear for him, fleece-lined wellies for me, and we began spending hours outside in our local woodland park every day, rain or shine.
What we discovered is echoed in the scientific literature. Henry had better sleep. A lustier (and less picky) appetite. More independent problem-solving. A much longer attention span, and an even longer fuse (tantrums virtually disappeared). Coughs and colds were much rarer, too, when Henry made mud pies instead of handling shared plastic toys at an indoor playgroup.
Lo and behold, there were benefits for me, too. I was still a lonely mom in a new town, but my happiness received a vital daily boost from being among trees, streams, and birdsong. I coped better with frustration and remained more present. Plus, let’s be honest: watching a toddler climb logs and explore puddles is way more joyful than playing with plastic bricks. I found myself enjoying being a full-time mom in a way I had never expected.
Unstructured play is the real work of childhood. An entire industry has been built around music classes, dance classes, and gym classes for young children, but quite frankly none of these have been shown to have the physical and emotional benefits that a wooded park can provide (for free). According to pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom has written, “Nature is the ultimate sensory experience.”
So I invite you to ditch many (or all!) of your young child’s organized activities, and take yourselves outside instead. Even now that my boys are at school, I crave my daily dose of nature-time, and my body and mind are healthier for it.
Dress sensibly: there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Make sure you and your child are warm and dry. Waterproof overalls and wellies are ideal, so that the clothes underneath stay clean (lifesaver). Your child needs to be free to explore her environment however she chooses, without you protesting that she’s going to get muddy or ruin her shoes. If the weather is warm, be prepared for sun and insects.
Playgrounds are not nature. Find a little wilderness park (even a vacant lot!) where there is soil, greenery, and (preferably) some water for your child to engage with.
Leave screens at home. Yup, you too, mama (or on airplane mode at the very least).
Leave toys at home. Kids will astonish you with what they find to play with outdoors if they aren’t distracted.
Try NOT to hover, direct, or correct your child’s play. Practice what parenting expert Vicki Hoefle calls “duct tape parenting,” and imagine your mouth is taped shut. Unless your child is in serious danger, let them make mistakes and even take a few minor bumps. This is how children learn best (and why their bodies heal so fast). Confession: this was super-hard for me; “be careful” was my favorite phrase. If you really feel you need to say something, try “pay attention” instead.
Don’t be all teacher-y about nature. Young kids don’t learn well from lecturing and explaining (something most schools could stand to learn, but that’s for another day…). Children live in a different state of reality than we do, with brain wave patterns that are more dream-world than real-world. Forget any educational agenda and just let them PLAY. You may be surprised by what you learn.
Let your children mess around with nature a little bit; woods are not a museum. This can be challenging if your local park has a lot of rules about staying on paths and not climbing trees, but unless you live in an endangered habitat, nature can handle it. Kids need to root around in the soil, gather pebbles, and pick leaves from shrubs in order to play creatively. Remember, they are more likely to be passionate about protecting the natural world as adults if they are allowed to fall in love with it as children, but they can’t fall in love with something if they never allowed to engage with it.
Revisit the same area again and again, and get to know it well. As my son (and then his younger brother) became familiar with our park, they began noticing the changes that come with seasons and the cycles of life. It’ll make you feel more secure, too, and you’ll feel comfortable letting your kids roam a little freer as they get older.
Now that my boys are 6 and 9, we still spend a lot of time in that same park. These days, however, they bring me along. I make myself comfortable on a mossy log with a book and Thermos of tea, while they disappear into the shrubbery to make dens or ride dragons. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Free Range Kids by Leonore Skenazy