There is almost nothing I haven’t done in my decade of parenting to get my children to voluntarily play outside.
We even turned our half-acre backyard into a childhood oasis: building a tree fort, rigging up a zip line, buying a soccer goal, creating a fairy garden, raising chickens, planting a vegetable garden, and installing a huge playset. But it turns out that just putting stuff out there wasn’t enough, there was one more step I had to take.
Parents have a real dilemma these days when it comes to finding ways to get their children to play outside consistently and safely. Many have opted for packing their schedules with organized activities, such as sports teams and dance classes. While this is a great way to keep your children healthy and active and away from the screens, organized activities don’t always encourage your child’s ability to explore and play using their imagination.
If they can’t roam the neighborhood for understandable safety reasons, then the best place to encourage free play is in your backyard. The backyard (or front yard, or driveway, or even patio) offers the easiest, safest, and simplest way to get your children outdoors.
But despite the childhood oasis in our backyard, my two young children persisted in preferring to be inside, watching television or playing games on their tablets. I was at my wit’s end and seriously considered unplugging the internet for good.
Then I realized the one thing that was missing from the outdoors for my children: me.
I work full time and can’t spend all day with my children, so when we are all home, my children want to be where I am, even if they’re not doing what I’m doing. I would constantly encourage my children to go outside, go play in the tree fort, go pick vegetables, but what they heard in their little minds was, “Go away from me.” As soon as I started to go outside with them, that changed completely.
Now they can’t get enough of the outdoors and would much rather be out than in. I’m not saying I join in on every activity, but I always make sure I am out there with them. I may be working on the vegetable garden while they’re playing soccer, or sitting on the porch while they’re drawing with chalk, but just being there with them was all the extra encouragement they needed.
After all, our children want to be like us, and they want to do what they see us doing. If we are constantly in front of screens and devices and not spending time outside, it makes sense that they will be, too. So get outside and enjoy your backyard. Your children will soon follow.
Here are eight inexpensive and easy ways to encourage your child to spend time in your backyard. Just remember to get out there as much as possible too—you’ll be making memories that will last a lifetime.
1. Make Outdoor Play Part of Your Daily Routine
When your children get home from school, insist they spend 30 minutes outdoors before they are allowed any electronics or screen time. Provide a playhouse, swing, sand table, basketball hoop, or some type of playset that will help spark their imaginations.
2. Create A Fun Tub
Once their imaginations kick in, children can have fun with a stick and a cardboard box, but you can help them along with a tub of outdoor toys. Invest in a good, weatherproof outdoor storage box and fill it with seasonal toys, such as water pistols, Frisbees, and soccer balls for the summer, and toy snow shovels, sleds, and snowball makers for the winter.
3. Buy Bubbles and Chalk
This is a trick guaranteed to work for all ages, even in the smallest outdoor spaces. Stock up on bubbles, bubble makers, and any bubble toys you can find—from bubble wands to bubble guns—and watch as your children are mesmerized by this simplest of toys. Speaking of simple toys, sidewalk chalk is another easy-to-use, anytime, anywhere crowd-pleaser that encourages creativity.
4. Start a Garden
Help encourage a love for and appreciation of nature by starting a garden for your child. Whether you start with a single pot or a full-blown vegetable garden, you can have your kids grow flowers and shrubs or veggies and fruit, whatever grabs their interest. Just be sure to give them their own space they can be responsible for. Show them how to plant, water, and care for their garden, and encourage continued interest by introducing fun bugs, such as ladybugs and caterpillars. Plant some milkweed and create a perfect habitat for Monarch butterflies, or even start a worm farm.
5. Get a Pet
Children are fascinated by animals, and introducing an outdoor creature into their lives will encourage them to spend time outside. From something as small as a turtle to a more labor-intensive and active animal like a dog, a pet will provide hours of fun plus help teach your child responsibility. In our household, we went with chickens. My son spends lots of time playing with them, cleaning their coop, and of course, collecting their eggs!
6. Go Camping
Backyard camping is one of the best kinds of camping. You have all the comforts of home nearby, but still get to enjoy the stars and fresh air. Set up a tent in the backyard and let your children spend the night out there. The sense of freedom will be exciting for the older children. For the little ones, backyard camping is a great way to introduce them to camping and all its delights.
7. Wash the Car
Being outside isn’t just about playtime. Outdoor chores are an ideal way to get children off the couch and helping out. From washing the car to mowing the lawn and sweeping the porch, spending time outside doing the “boring stuff” could well lead to spending more time outdoors having fun, too.
8. Invite Friends Over
If all else fails, get your children outside by inviting their friends to come over. The outdoors is always more fun when shared, and with a friend or two, the backyard is instantly transformed into a battlefield, soccer tournament, or fairy land with just a few simple toys and lots of imagination. Just be sure to invite more friends over than you have game console controllers!
Author: Jennifer Tuohy
Image: Jesse Millan/Flickr
Editor: Nicole Cameron