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For families with school-aged children, summer vacation will be here before you know it. If you are a parent preoccupied with how to manage your kids’ time while they aren’t in school, you certainly are not alone. In the rush to get signed up for swim lessons, summer sports, and activity camps, can we offer you some advice? This summer, avoid overscheduling your kids, and instead allow time for outdoor unstructured play. 

The Power of Playing Outside

Play is crucial for a child’s development. It creates a space where they can interact with the world in a variety of ways as they learn independence, emotional regulation, problem-solving, cause and effect, and resilience. Furthermore, play fosters curiosity and creativity. The outdoors is the perfect setting for this growth to take place, since being in nature offers a wide variety of things to explore and encourages the use of all five of a child’s senses—something that is essential for both healthy brain development and strong physical development.

Outdoor play engages all five of a child's senses, which is essential for physical and cognitive development.

Evidence suggests that as the years go by, kids are spending less and less time both outdoors and in unstructured play. Parents can help change these negative trends by encouraging children to explore the great outdoors while intentionally leaving more time in children’s schedules for unstructured and unsupervised play. Read on for some tips that will help you get your child outside this summer, as well as ideas for activities the entire family can enjoy.

Tips for Successful Outdoor Play

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  • Gear up: Having successful outside time requires proper preparation during any season. As you seek more opportunities to get outside as a family, you will want to make sure you have the right gear. Look for items that are high-quality, and remember that this is an investment in your child’s development. You may even consider keeping an outdoor play bag—complete with a change of clothes, wipes, snacks, extra sunscreen, towels, and maybe a shovel or two—in your car to allow for spontaneous adventures! 
  • Be mindful of the weather: Depending on where you live, outdoor play during the summer can seem less appealing because of the heat and/or humidity. As you intentionally plan time outside, be sure to coordinate the activity with the appropriate time of day to keep it pleasant. For example, you might not mind the heat so much if you are headed to the pool to swim, but if you are heading out for a hike you might choose to leave early in the morning before the sun gets too high in the sky. And no matter the time of day, always take plenty of water and stay hydrated. 
  • Let the child lead: Unstructured play is less about the destination and more about the journey. If you are exploring outside with your child, let them lead—especially in regards to pace. If your walk around the block takes an hour because they stop to pick dandelions or watch a bug cross the sidewalk, trust that they are reaping the benefits of that time. Not only that, you might just find that slowing down, noticing what’s around you, and finding joy in the small things has benefits for you as well.

Ideas for Getting Outside

  • Go for a hike: Hikes are great physical exercise as well as a wonderful way to enjoy the outdoors. If you’re looking to expand your outdoor experience, consider getting a National Parks Pass.
  • Create a backyard water park: Can’t get to the pool? Turn on the sprinklers and create your very own water park in your backyard.
  • Take a bike/scooter/skateboard/rollerblades for a spin: Put on a helmet, grab anything with wheels, and go. 
  • Geocache: Geocaching involves hunting for previously hidden items using GPS coordinates (if you’re thinking this sounds like a treasure hunt, you’re right!). This activity can be exciting and fun for all ages.
  • Grow a garden: Planting and tending to a garden is a great way to get outside, and to connect with nature. And no matter what you choose to grow, it is always exciting when you get to harvest the fruits of your labor.
  • Stargaze: Head somewhere with little light pollution, and see what constellations you can find. 
  • Splash in a lake/ocean/creek: There is something magical about playing in a natural body of water. Grab a bathing suit and some sunscreen and go for a swim, look for wildlife, ride a kayak or paddle board, or build a sand castle.
  • Create a neighborhood sports league: Encourage your children to gather with the other kids from the neighborhood and play a game of street basketball, backyard football or soccer, baseball, or any other team sport. Work to build trust between parents in your neighborhood, and set rules to encourage safe play (such as what to do if a car comes down the road), but remember to allow the kids to take the lead as much as possible.
  • Collect bugs: This can be a great activity for kids of any age to get them excited about exploring the world around them. Check out books from the library about different kinds of bugs native to your area, and see how many species you can find in your backyard.
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Whether you are adventuring in a national park or gardening in your backyard, spending time outdoors this summer is sure to benefit the whole family. So what are you waiting for? Put down that device and get outside! 

Want to learn more about how you can facilitate healthy growth and development for your children? Check out the R3 Academy to learn about HRC’s free parenting workshops!