If left to their own devices my children would spend hours in front of a screen. As I would have done at their age. And did, in fact, with the telly.
Screen-time can be creative and educational, and there are certainly apps and games that I think are brilliant.
The drawback is that children don’t get multi-sensory stimulation from a screen. There is very little action. We were designed to build motor pathways of movements, and to stimulate our vestibular system (balance) and our proprioception (where are limbs are in relation to our body). We are designed to do rhythmic and heavy work, stretching out our limbs, making our hearts pump and lungs take in deep breaths. We are designed to integrate all of our senses to track changes in the environment, in order to stay safe, to hunt, forage or make shelters…
It’s a survival game.
Which is one way to get children outdoors. There is nothing children like more than playing survival.
For younger children this might be a pretend-game. Do you remember this? Landing on a desert island, or on another planet? You might have provided your children with a playhouse, but have you noticed how they prefer to make their own? Our children loved to make teepees, or shelters from deckchairs and towels. They had a den in the bushes that adults couldn’t fit into.
For older children, it might be putting up a tent on the lawn, or toasting marshmallows on a fire, or picking blackberries, or crab-fishing. All these are ‘survival’ skills.
No tick-boxes or worksheets!
We want children to be interested in nature, don’t we? To be able to identify a type of butterfly or a garden bird. But I would avoid anything that feels like a worksheet or a list of things to tick off. I really hated these as a child, and I seem to have passed this on to my children. Whenever we were presented at a National Trust property with a sheet of things to spot, we would all inwardly groan and I would politely pass it back to the confused volunteer.
Try not to have a preconceived idea of what your child will learn. If something catches their interest, you can encourage them to find out more about it.
Children love collecting things. Conkers, berries, fallen petals. Even better if they can press them into a mud-pie. Our children’s collections have included creepie crawlies. We have had snail zoos and caterpillar Olympics. And yes, I have had to stop the children from keeping them as pets.
Let them lead
The best way to learn is to follow your nose. To see what catches your attention outdoors. Encourage children to lift up stones, stir up pondwater, stare up through trees. Something is bound to happen. Look at the bumps or holes on leaves: what made them? Where is that bee going? What is it doing inside that flower? Ask the odd question to generate discussion, but don’t jump in with an answer. Encourage your child to watch, and listen, and touch, and sniff. Encourage them to follow their impulses.
Children naturally get into positions where they can see interesting things. They crouch, they lie down, they roll down hills, they can’t see over the top of grass. Encourage this sense of exploration. Skip through sand-dunes. Watch clouds. Don’t come in as soon as it starts raining. Something unexpected might happen.
Let them get messy
Dress children for action. Shorts and teeshirts are perfect; long trousers if they are going to be climbing, jumping rocks or going through nettles and brambles. They might also want trainers rather than crocs or sandals.
Don’t squeal if your child wants to touch something slimy. Short of excrement or rotting flesh, there are very few things that are going to harm them. It is fine to pick up a worm or a slug, and probably good for our immune systems. There are a few poisonous or toxic plants, and you can train your child to avoid these. There is an enormous sense of competence for a child if they can warn the rest of the family about a danger up ahead!
Let them roam
I know that this gives most parents the heebie-jeebies. But just think about this for a moment. Where did you most like to play as a child? Was it outdoors? Was it away from adults? Did it involve doing something you thought adults might disapprove of?
This is the freedom and the fun of childhood. I’m not talking about toddlers here. I’m talking about children who have good language skills, can reason, know what to do if something goes wrong, and who do not have any health risks.
From when our children were around eight, they were allowed to go down the footpath where Stevie and I couldn’t see or hear them. They could go as far as the footbridge, but no further. We assessed the dangers first. There were nettles and barbed wire and a ditch of water. I had a special call (an ‘ayack’ – thanks Luce!) which they could hear if I needed them to come back. Which they did, every time, all ayacking in response! They took picnics and made dens. For hours. The worst thing that ever happened was that my younger daughter cut herself. I knew from the way she slinked in that something had happened, and found her surreptitiously cleaning the (minor) wound in the bathroom. She confessed she had picked up a piece of glass. She learnt something that day.
Let them take risks
Our children are all brilliant tree-climbers. They are not afraid to jump ditches. I might not have been able to look when they first did this, but I tried not to let my nerves show. The challenges were within their capabilities, and they built up gradually.
They all know how to fall. They learnt to drop out of a tree at the same time as they learnt to climb.
Apparently more children break bones on bunk-beds and trampolines than falling out of trees.
So start your children young at the playground. Expect some falls. Don’t react too much to minor falls, and brush off scrapes and scratches. A child with scabs on their knees is a child who is having fun.
Our children are at their most creative in the garden. We have had teepees with ice for windows, or woven with flowers, or piled up with leaves.
They have made games where they balance on logs and push themselves along with sticks. They’ve made obstacle courses. They’ve done disgusting things to the paddling pool.
Today our younger two did this:
It’s a watermelon slice made from petals and flowers from my dead-heading bucket. It’s so beautiful I had to take a few photos!
Before they’d done this, I had to entice them outside by asking if they wanted to fill some jam-jars with flowers.
This is what they made:
But it started with this:
So do let your children loose with the snippers. And once you’ve taught them the risks, stand back a bit. See what they do.
And if necessary, turn off the wifi.
I like to maximise the joy in my life by getting outdoors and noticing things. If you would like to indulge yourself too, then you can ‘Follow’ this blog by clicking on the button at the bottom of this page. You will receive an email every time I post about a little pop of wonder.