Helping your Preschoolers Go Outside and Play

Several people have asked me about the practical work of nature study/time and getting little kids outdoors. This is subject near and dear to my heart because I wanted it long before I was able to make it happen. This, along with nightly bible time and reading aloud were probably the biggest things that I really wanted to make a of our family culture. Reading aloud was easy. The other two took a bit more work and a large part of that is that, unlike reading aloud, they weren't as big a part of my life growing up. But we are making it happen. Hopefully, these few tips will let you benefit from what I've learned these past few years.

It starts with getting the kids outside. Yes, to study nature you should probably be spending at least some of your time in nature. And it seems so simply, just go outside! But it was really hard for me at the beginning. So if this is difficult for you to, don't be discouraged! Instead...

1) Be Convinced

I'm trying to limit this post to the practical aspect of outdoor time so I'll try not to get off track but practice comes from our philosophy so you really do need to start out with convictions. Don't do nature time because I say so or because another homeschooling family does and you feel you should too - or even simply because Charlotte Mason does. That won't provide real change. Be convinced in your own mind. I think reading section II of Charlotte's first volume would be a wonderful place to start but checking out Last Child in the Woods from the library could probably get you started as well.

My guess is that mother's of girls need more convincing than mother's of boys. Lucy enjoys spending time outside now and I know it benefits her but Jonah NEEDS it. When Lucy was sick last week and he was stuck inside, it was not pleasant. He doesn't seem to be particularly active outside, more walking and exploring than running, and our inside space is kid friendly so I wouldn't have expected it to make such a big different but by the third day of very limited outdoor time,  it was like trying to contain a tornado. So maybe you need convincing, maybe not.

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What better time to take a hike than a couple hours before a snow storm was about to hit our area? I knew we needed to let Jonah stretch his legs while he could so why not?

I can't possible leave this section without including what might be my absolute favorite quote of Mason's and it is her response to those who say the long hours outdoors she is suggesting are impossible.

Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them.  Charlotte Mason (Vol 1, Home Education, pg 44)

Basically, she says what she thinks is best for children (and in the full volume, the why is included) and leave it up to mother's to make it happen because she believes they can and will. What faith!

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Jonah's first hike at less than 2 weeks old. 

2) Aim High, But Not Too High

I don't mean for this to counteract the first section but be reasonable as well. Don't go from the only time you spend outdoors being the walk to the mailbox to shoving your kids outside for 6 hours a day and expect everyone to be happy. We started with 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes in the afternoon and when we started, that felt like a long time for me to keep Lucy happy (and by happy, I mean not completely whiny and miserable until my head is about to explode and I've used up my allotment of patience for the day). We've slowly built up.

These days, my reasonable goal is 4-5 hours total. 2-3 hours in the morning, 2-3 hours after nap and if possible at least one meal outside. That works for us at this stage and season since we've actually had a fairly cool summer. On a really hot day, it won't be that much and if you live in Texas, July is probably not a good month to start trying to increase your time outside. But if you start with 30 minutes now, then increase that as the weather gets nicer, you'll be doing great!

I find Nature, being God's world, has a lot in common with the Bible, God's Word, in that the more time you spend with it, the more time you crave.

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3) Schedule it In.

I don't just mean fit it into the remnants of your schedule but actually arrange your schedule to best fit ourdoor time. I love the idea of getting up and getting bible done first, then chores done and dinner prepped first then move on to fun for the rest of the day. It sounds great on paper. In reality, that puts us going outside at 10:30 am just when all our shade is gone over the big toys and driveway and within 20 minutes the kids are whining that it's hot.

So for the summer, we get up and eat breakfast then go outside. I do take my bible but I leave the kids stuff for later. I do the basic kitchen cleaning, I'm not leaving dirty plates on the table but I don't waste the wonderful 8:30am weather on cleaning toilets. So by 11am, we've gradually gotten used to the heat so it doesn't feel so bad and we're even okay eating lunch outside and when it really gets too hot, we are all ready to head in and do some of our indoor activities and chores before quiet time.


In the fall as it starts to get cooler, I'll change it up so we do things in the morning when its still chilly then head outside before nap when the noon sun keeps us warm. I realize that this time period where I really can completely change my schedule to accommodate outdoor time is fleeting. Soon, demands of "real school" and activities will probably start encroaching but for as long as a I can, time outdoors is going to be a major deciding factor in our schedule.

We are really lucky in that our backyard area is large but even so, we try to branch out to other parks and nature centers regularly. If you don't have a great backyard, this is even more important. So make it a weekly event and let the kids know that Thursday is park day. They wont' let you forget.

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Snack breaks - a wonderful thing. 

4) Make It Easy

Inertia can be hard to overcome and if going outside takes a lot of work each day, it's not going to happen. So make it easy to get outside and make it easy to stay outside. This part is key when you have little people. At first I felt like I was spending all my time dragging everyone back in because someone needed water, or a toy or a diaper or to use the potty. It was exhausting. So all pottying/diapering needs to be done first, take water bottles with you, keep their sandals by the door. When Lucy was smaller, we even kept a small potty in our garage. Yes, it's a bit redneck but it made life so much easier - and luckily our neighbors aren't that close. Now that it's our boy that's potty training, the potty is unnecessary (ah, the joys of a boy!).

If you don't have a backyard and have to rely on parks and playgrounds, get a tote bag for your bubbles, a blanket, snacks and babywipes so after breakfast you can just grab it and go. I keep a picnic blanket in the car at all times along with an extra babywearing device so if I want to make a last minute decision to stop at a park, I can.

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5) Make It Enjoyable

This comes fairly easily for kids so let's start by making it enjoyable for you. I really enjoy getting outside because now that the kids are used to it, its a bit of free(er) time for me. I do my personal bible time in the morning while they play and after that I normally get some other free reading done too. Make sure you have a comfortable chair and water for yourself. If you're trying to spend your time sitting on the corner of a sandbox, you'll max out at 30 minutes. I've set myself up to get lots of outdoor time because I really enjoy sitting down in the share and reading and watching them play. It's fun and relaxing, why wouldn't I put in a little effort up front to make it happen?

Also, this might be hard at first, but don't try and entertain your kids the whole time because if you are anything like me, you probably won't enjoy it. Wait, did I just admit that while I love my children, I don't enjoy playing with them for hours on end? Yes, I did. I'll pull them in the wagon for a while or draw Lucy a "hot-spotch" board but for the most part, they know outside time means they play. It's not just for my sake but for theirs. They play differently when I'm directing them or even just tagging along in their games. I want them to be bored, to go off exploring, to look under stumps for bugs or find all the different types of leaves and make a pretend nest out of them or lying in the grass watching the clouds.

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There is a balance to that though. A good portion of my time outside is still spent kissing knees, tying shoes, putting helmets on, taking helmets off, and the list could go on. I don't ignore them, especially when they are doing the things I hope to encourage (like observing things, but more on that next time).

Once you are comfortable, make sure they are too. We've got rain gear, snow gear, sunglasses and hats if its really sunny. And yes, some toys are good. It doesn't have to be a toy store and shouldn't be because you want them to get out in the yard but a few things help. Our bikes, sandbox and dome are all loved but outside toys don't have to be expensive. Bubbles, chalk, a jump rope (neither of my kids is old enough to use a jump rope as it is intended but they still love it as a pretend play prop). A friend passed down a water table which we love for our front porch but in our backyard, we normally do buckets and measuring cups of water and that's just as fun. But even with all that, I will admit that at least once in the past week I have had to tell Lucy to stop staring at me and go play!

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With the right gear, a little rain won't slow you down. And if the rain stops before they are done jumping in puddles, you can always make some more :-)

6) Mow the Lawn

So what do you do if your kids don't play? They just sit there and look at you? Or bug you to play with them they whole time? This was our biggest issue in the beginning until I realized that my husband does not have this issue when he is outside with them. And that's because he's working. He's watering the gardens or pruning or fixing things or mowing the lawn. They would normally start off "helping" him but gradually get bored and find things to do to occupy themselves. So most mornings, I start outside time by trying to read my bible but if they kids just seem stuck, I get to work. Hanging clothes on the line and checking on our vegetable are easy jobs and while I don't particularly care about dandelions in our yard, I've been known to spend a good 30 minutes weeding. But mowing the lawn is my last hail Mary. Craig knows that if he sees a portion of the lawn mown when he gets home, I was struggling. I And if the whole lawn is mowed, well, he probably needs to offer to let me take a nap that afternoon because they must have been super clingy!

So now you know my tips and tricks for getting your kids outside. There aren't any miracle solutions but hopefully I was able to share at least a dose of encouragement. I didn't even touch on what to do with nature once your out there so I might be back later with that if you all express an interest but at the tinies and tots stage, getting outside really is half the battle.

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