Worry about outdoor play instead of video play

For those of you who have not read the story of the courtship between me and my husband, it was sordid. I had just come from ten years in NYC preceeded by ten years in LA. He was still living on the far-from-everything farm he grew up on in Wisconsin. The culture clash was huge, and we pretty much broke up once a month until the kids and I moved into his house.

One of the things that kept me going was that I knew I wanted to live in a rural setting, and I knew the farm was the right place for me and the kids. I also knew that there was no way I was going to like living on a farm without a farmer.

The day I was hooked was the first day I visited the farm and held my older son’s hand while we walked across the pasture to meet the cattle heard.

The one thing I am sure I’ve done right as a parent is to move to a farm with my kids. Every day here is magical. This week, the windows for the room we’re adding on the house were on back order. The carpenter has been saying for months that the tree in the front yard needed a tree house. So while we were waiting for the windows, he built a treehouse.

The boys didn’t leave the treehouse all day. Even for meals. (I’m pretty sure they peed off the side. What boy wouldn’t try that at least one time?)

Now that we’ve established that computer gaming does not take away from reading time, it’s pretty clear that what it does take away from is outdoor time. But my kids spend about five hours a day outside; if there is a good environment for being outside, kids will go.

So instead of worrying that gaming is bad for kids, why not start a conversation about how the outdoors should be more more enticing to kids? I sacrificed a lot to give my kids an outdoor setting. I mean, we drive eight hours to cello lessons, right? But it’s clear to me that when you gain something in location you lose something in location and this is really true of kids and outdoors.

It’s crazy that the best way to give kids who go to school some time in the great outdoors is to send them to summer camp. Or let them run free when school is out. Winter vacation to Florida. This is crazy because it teaches kids that learning is for indoors, and a break from learning is the outdoors.

Richard Lov, author of Last Child in the Woods calls this problem nature-deficit disorder. He says kids should think of learning and outdoors as the same. Because outdoors is essential for wellbeing, and learning is essential for well-being. They should be together.

There are so many discussions about the choices we make for homeschooling, but so few discussions focus on outdoors. Here’s a test I devised, to figure out how rich an environment your kids have outdoors. Give yourself one point for each answer.

1. Can your kids walk for a mile on their own and be safe?

2. Can your kids find new animals on their own?

3. Can your kids climb trees and dig holes unsupervised?

4. Can your kids forage for plants they can eat?

5. Can you tell your kids, “I can’t stand hearing you fight anymore! Go outside!”

We have five points. But we have given up almost everything—all city amenities—to live on a farm. So probably if you score five points, you are nuts.

3-4 points: It’s a great environment for your kids.

1-2 points: You probably value many things more than kids learning from being outside. And this is probably a higher risk area for you than how much screen time  your kids may or may not have.


19 replies
  1. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    This is something I have thought about so often! I have to read that book, Last Child in the Woods, although it might depress me too much.

    I have always thought the single biggest thing to make the world a better place (aside from home-schooling of course ;)) would be to eliminate all school busses and make every kid walk or ride a bike to school (no parents driving!). To create a world that is safe for kids to get to and from school on their own power is a world that is more cohesive, understanding and enjoyable for everyone.

  2. David
    David says:

    We live in a co-housing community next to a community garden and vegetable farm, and I have a score of 4. Since there is a prarie, they could almost walk a mile, so I would put it at almost 5. And, we have all city amenties. Even in city limits there are an abundance of creatures: birds of prey, various rodents, fox, deer, coyotes, etc.. And there are berries and vegetation to forage.
    Great post.
    The “treehouse”, looks more like a tree “deck” :) . But so cool….

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      I also like the tree “deck”. It looks like it could handle a few adults too. I wonder if it would be possible to get the kids to provide “deck service”. :)

  3. P Flooers
    P Flooers says:

    Five for five over here!

    One of the best things about homeschool is unlimited time outside in the fall and spring. We hit the beach in October when everyone else is in school. The beach is ours alone, its 85 outside, and we have nothing but time. As with institutional school, we think going to the beach in July is for suckers! (Yeah, I said it. muahahahaha)

  4. Carole
    Carole says:

    I score a five and basically my story mirrors yours. I married into a difficult situation, but I had found my home in the woods. I belonged to the land and so did my two boys. We have stood our ground here for twenty years with my husband who revolutionized our lives.

  5. Bec Oakley
    Bec Oakley says:

    There’s a jump here that I’m not quite following. I agree that if there is a ‘good environment for being outside, kids will go’ but the problem is in defining what a ‘good environment’ is. And just like with other forms of education, there’s no one right answer for all kids.

    What if your kids aren’t independent enough to walk a mile on their own? If sensory and coordination issues make hole digging, tree climbing and interacting with animals unpleasant for them? Merely having the opportunity for these things isn’t going to make kids learn from them any more than plonking them into a maths class will make them an expert at calculus.

    I want to know why the outdoors isn’t enticing to my kids. I want to understand why video games are, and how to transfer that to the outdoors to make that a good place to learn too.

    So I agree that’s where the discussion needs to be, but we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of applying a nature bias and starting from the assumption that all kids will learn from the outdoors in the same way.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Now that I read your comment, Bec, I see that what I’m really getting at is the mysteries of nature. If there are mysteries to be uncovered, the kids will explore.

      I remember my outdoor life in the suburbs being lush but manicured and organized. There were very few mysterious spots for me to investigate on my own. It was clear that adults had already had their way with all the spots.

      I think the mysteries of nature are what draw kids into nature.

      And, an aside about kids with sensory issues and physical therapy issues: That’s my oldest son. As a toddler he qualified for state-funded physical therapy ten hours a week, and he still is floppy and unorganized.

      But on the farm, he changes. He has authority and confidence where he didn’t used to. I saw it right away when there were trees that were knocked down in the forest, easy for climbing. You don’t see those very often – most people don’t have access to messy, unkept woods. He started climbing those and he learned to climb by climbing. He didn’t want to climb in the gym for physical therapy. There was no mystery.


      • Bec Oakley
        Bec Oakley says:

        I’ve been thinking about this all day. You’re right about mysteries, it’s what makes any learning enticing to kids.

        But isn’t there an individual component to what kids will find mysterious? Calculus is surely mysterious, but not every kid feels compelled to seek out the mystery or curious enough to solve its problems. And I’m wondering if it’s the same with the outdoors… does it really have an inherent mystery that all kids will respond to if given the chance? Or are we romanticizing nature as an educational environment?

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          The links in this post are people who study how fundamental nature is to our wellbeing. It’s not that some people are drawn to nature and some aren’t. It’s in our DNA because we had to always want to wander somewhere else to see what’s there in order for humanity to progress from the Stone Age.

          I hate to harp on Myers Briggs, but there are some people who are focused on ideas, and some people who are focused on doing things physically, and obviously that makes people relate to nature differently. But look at Thoreau: all about ideas and still connected to nature. That is all of us, I think. Searching through the mysteries of nature is part of what makes us human. All of us.


          • Bec Oakley
            Bec Oakley says:

            Of course I’m not disputing that the outdoors is essential to our wellbeing. But you said let’s make the discussion about how to make it more enticing to our kids, and I think the “by giving them access to it” solution is too simplistic.

            I’m just trying to be objective about the outdoors and hold it up to the same scrutiny I would any other learning environment. I want to know how to adapt it to my kids, how to make it work for them. We score a 5 on your quiz but that doesn’t mean my kids are as excited by it as they are video games. I want to figure out why not.

            They are fascinated by one of the biggest mysteries of nature – physics – and at the moment video games are letting them explore than in a much more accessible and fascinating way that being outside.

  6. Gwen Nicodemus
    Gwen Nicodemus says:

    We live in a suburb.

    I feel safe walking a mile in any direction, and I’d feel safe with the kids doing so. My kids don’t though, ‘caus they’re afraid of getting lost.

    They dig holes sometimes, and one of them climbs one of the trees.

    I axed the grass in the front yard and planted a crazy mixture of stuff. So, they forage for strawberries, blackberries, and some other kind of berry. Sometimes I send them out to fetch me dill or chives. My daughter is trying to grow a garden in the backyard.

    Every once in a while someone spots a snake in the backyard. We’ve named him George, and we’re all happy as long as he stays in his area and we stay in ours. Mostly, we just see birds and butterflies. The front yard occasionally sports a fox or a deer. But that’s about it.

    And of course I kick them out when they’re driving me nuts.

    So, in the suburb, I can get a four or five, depending on how you score.

    Now the people who have an acre or two in a ‘burb…that’s the best, IMO.

  7. dan
    dan says:

    We’re five for five, but what is the age when it’s appropriate to let them wander and explore? Our oldest is still preschool age and while she has curiosity about the outdoors, there are risks she seems unready to process.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I have a good perspective on this because I grew up in very safe, rich-kid suburbs, and I’m raising my kids on a farm. And how much we let our kids explore is cultural.

      For example, there are wild animals, and fast-running creeks, electric fences, and my kids go through all that, alone. They climb trees very high alone. They go berry picking alone deep in the forest where it would take a long time to look for them.

      When I first moved here with the kids I was nuts about holding their hand. Everywhere. My husband had to tell me “this is the way kids live in the country” and he convinced me, day after day, week after week, to give the kids more freedom outside.

      It’s totally cultural.


  8. Mandy
    Mandy says:

    I grew up with plenty ofoutdoor place to explore and enjoy. My brother and I had a fort in the woods and I used to walk our dog all around our neighborhood unsupervised. It was a beautiful childhood, and my brother and I both realize how blessed we were.

    Fast forward to today: I live in a tiny apartment in the Bronx with my husband and two boys (ages 4 and 2). I love it. We moved here as a result of what we believe is a direct calling from God. We want to help our church reach out to the low income communities. I feel like I was created for the city, there is just so much that I love about it, most of all the people.

    However, my the sake of my boys I have to make a major point of getting outside. Our backyard is literally a small slab of concrete. There are no trees and no grass. It’s tiny, and there’s only so long a person can be back there without going a little crazy. It’s kind of like when they let the prisoners outside each day for a little air. :)

    We make the most of what we have. We also go for long walks together and explore our neighborhood. We walk or take the bus to the park and spend lots of time outside. We walk most places, and we make it a huge point to enjoy the outdoors.

    I think it is less about where you live, and more about how dedicated you are to the well-being of your children. I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive.

    Thanks for your article! I enjoyed it.

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