15 Minutes Outside

I’ve been paging through Rebecca P. Cohen’s new book, 15 Minutes Outside: 365 ways to get out of the house and connect with your kids. There is plenty of research finding that getting outdoors can boost one’s mood, and kids who spend time outdoors are highly likely to get more physical activity than those who don’t. So those are two big reasons to get out there.

Of course, the question for modern children, accustomed to video games and such, is what you do once you get outside. One can always hit the playground, and we do this fairly frequently. But this is sometimes not terribly relaxed, partly because of the Intense Other Parent Factor (at a playground just outside Washington DC earlier today, I kept having parents apologize for their 2- and 3-year-olds taking our ball, as if children that age have much concept of other people’s stuff anyway. Sometimes I want to hang a sign saying “Chill out! I’m not going to judge you!”)

Cohen’s book lists hundreds of activities for kids to do outside during all types of weather. The idea is that once you get them started on something, they’ll probably come up with something else, and eventually move to the unstructured free play that is the holy grail of child development.

Among my favorite ideas:

  • Do homework outside. If you have to do a boring worksheet, it’s still better while lying on a blanket on the grass.
  • Find wonder in a small pail. Have kids collect whatever they like (blades of grass, acorns, etc). in a pail and then look at them under a magnifying glass.
  • Give your kid a place to dig. Digging is just plain fun. So why not give kids a patch of dirt in the backyard where they can go to town?
  • Play leaf tic-tac-toe with autumn leaves of the same color as Xs or Os. Or just use different species of trees at any point in the year.
  • Track an animal. A lost human skill, if you think about it.
  • Get the kids to weed and rake!

By the time you get to 365, naturally, some ideas seem not so fabulous. It also bothers me that Cohen buys, hook-line-and-sinker, into the idea that picky eaters will eat their vegetables if they plant them themselves. It’s fine to keep a garden if you’re into it, and kids often like plucking tomatoes and peppers and the like. But my own experience with this is the exact opposite of her claim that “One of the best things is to get your kids involved in growing and harvesting the vegetables. They are more willing to try new foods if they can proudly boast, ‘I grew that!'” Maybe if you don’t have a truly picky eater. But despite this as an overarching theme of essays in numerous parenting and women’s magazines, I’m not convinced it’s the case. My 2-year-old eats lots of things and eats the tomatoes we grow. My 4-year-old loves picking tomatoes, but will not eat them, or our acorn squash, no matter how many bushels he picks. Picky eating is not really about your parenting (or you wouldn’t have kids in the same family behaving so differently). It’s about some kids being more sensitive to tastes than others.

But I digress. In general, coming up with ideas of stuff to do with kids is tough. It’s always easier to turn on the TV, but watching television for hours isn’t terribly fulfilling, and probably won’t create the kind of memories that splashing in mud puddles will. So it’s good to read a book reminding us that the latter is an option.

What do you do to get your kids outside?

(cross posted at Gifted Exchange; photo courtesy flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg)

7 thoughts on “15 Minutes Outside

  1. I like the homework outside idea–for my pre-K daughter, homework is still a treat, but I can see a few years down the line this could be a handy trick.
    One of the best ways I’ve found to get outside play happening is to encourage the development of “summer feet” – basically the thick skin that protects from the minor rocks, sticks and whatnot that accumulate on our patio. As soon as the sun is shining, outdoors is fair game. No one has to put on shoes to make a quick stop outside to see what the praying mantis has caught today. Give them a bucket of chalk, kitchen utensils, large sticks for whacking at things (that would be the toddler boy) and a mom who is confident they won’t really hurt themselves as long as I peek out the window occasionally, and they go to town. Also, I would love to take great care of our bikes etc, but in southern California, we can leave them outside year round, and we do. The paint fades, the plastic toys eventually crack, but there isn’t the time spent on dragging things back and forth each time they want to play and the resulting less use they would get.
    Note- our backyard is something like 400 square feet. It is not a large space, but we treat it like an outdoor room. Kids don’t need tons of space to roam outside, they just like being out there.

    1. We jump on the trampoline! I have a desk job, so I need to get some exercise when I get home. We hook up the ipod to the speakers and I try to jump for 30 minutes with the kids. Music really makes it fun. I like it because it includes all the kids (aged 10,8 and 5) and we get pretty silly. I have some bad music on my ipod and not very kid appropriate. They love to jump to “I like big butts…”

    2. @Calee- I too am keeping the homework idea in mind… Nope, space is not too important, though I think a fence is good for peace of mind. I’m not quite comfortable yet with leaving the kids out without me on the porch, but eventually I’ll become so. Still getting over city precautions…

  2. I haven’t read the book but as a mom of middle school kids, my advice is to say (as my mom has said) “Go play outside.”

    That’s it. Don’t try to come up with activities. They’ll figure something out. Parents try to orchestrate fun too much (in my humble opinion.)

    Yes, when they were little, I kept a close eye on them. We have a fenced yard and have taken the usual precautions (no pesticides or sharp objects within reach.)

    We had an old swingset (the $150 metal kind instead of the $2000 “play structure” kind) and a sand box, trikes then bikes, chalk, bubbles and other toys but they mainly had their imaginations. They made forts out of old blankets and made up their own games. Even at age 11 and 13, they’re outside all the time – which has won us surprising amounts of praise from the older neighbors whose grandchildren seldom leave their video games and computer.

    We do go on walks, go to parks and nature centers, and all that too. But I think kids need unstructured time without parental guidance. We don’t have to be Julie the Cruise Director for our children.

  3. It’s windy here and we’re gathering interesting leaves to iron between pieces of waxed paper. My kids like carrots and green beans out of the garden- does your picky eater like those? They like digging potatoes but not eating them.

    My kids use our space (we have 0.7 acre) and I expect them to use it more as they get bigger and the balls they kick go farther, etc. I’ll also put in a plug for a play structure- we bought our small wooden structure by putting an ad on craigslist and spent $100. It’s in good condition and new costs at least $600-$800. Two swings, a slide, a horizontal ladder, a standard ladder, a rope ladder, a glider and a sandbox.

    1. @Twin Mom – nope, no carrots or green beans. Not even potatoes, except in French Fry form. I tried, a la Jessica Seinfeld, to put carrots into some muffins, and I was caught, and the muffins were refused. All the sneaky chef stuff neglects to mention that for it to work, you have to keep your kids out of the kitchen while you’re cooking. And since cooking/baking is something they actually like doing with me, that’s not going to happen.

  4. My 16 year old just spent an hour outside– mowing the grass. I asked if he felt better for being outside today, and he said: What? What did you just read?

    Obviously, my kids are older, but I second the “go play outside” command, which worked pretty well in the bygone years. I also felt that having a strict television/video game time limits– I learned this a little later– meant that boredom drove them out after a while. Also if you give them lots of jobs to do inside– help me with this, dust that, etc– pretty soon they slip out the back door on their own. 🙂

    For boys, once they get older, the best outside encouragement I found was Airsoft guns. Your morals may vary, but in the early teenage years, my sons spent hours outdoors instead of inside, with lots of friends, and rarely got injured more than a tiny bit. But do provide ample warning that in more public areas of the city there is a chance that you could be face to face with a swat team by accident. And that you shouldn’t tell your grandma about that ever.

    Walks with little kids, after dinner, just around the block–I wish I’d done more of that. My dad did that with my half-sibs, and I think it was wonderful.

    As far as food and gardens, those people are crazy. Your kids are young. My teenagers eat everything, you just keep offering and don’t fill the house up with junk as an alternative. My fourteen year old daughter just the other night finally said, it’s okay, about the mushrooms and onions. Wow. But let them eat what they want and leave what they don’t and no big deals about any of it, it’ll work out. Without a garden.

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