What I Learned from Spending a Week Outside with My Toddlers

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I’ve heard of the benefits of unstructured time outside repeatedly. I’ve seen the Instagram posts with children playing in their immaculately prepared outdoor spaces - gardening, climbing on their play structures, sliding, swinging, and carefully transferring water in their sensory table or mud kitchen.

I’ll be honest; it felt a little out of reach. My backyard is not perfectly manicured; we don’t have a play structure, the garden is just a bed of dirt and weeds, and while we have a beautifully ample and open space to play, it didn’t feel like it was enough. But in a moment of motivation, I decided to dedicate a week of our lives to spending as much time outside as possible.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the privilege that comes with this experience. I work flexibly from home, I am able to spend my day outside with my children. Not everyone reading this is able to do this, so I am not here to tell you to replicate this experiment. I am here to share what I’ve learned and how it affected our family.

Here are the challenges and joys we experienced!

Less Screen Time

I think I share the same sentiment that many other parents feel—I want less screen time for my kids, but I also want a break now and then.

On my first day outside, I immediately felt defeated. We had been out for one hour, and I was ready to be done. Needing some motivation, I decided to listen to a podcast by Ginny Yurich about how she started the movement 1000 Hours Outside1. She said that, on average, children consume 4-6 hours of screen time a day. What if children spent that much time outdoors?

I found a new goal and a new motivation. Instead of merely spending as much time outside as we could, I wanted to spend at least 4-6 hours outside every day for one week. And that’s what we did.

Better Sleep

Sleep has been elusive in our home. My one-year-old still was not sleeping through the night. I woke up every morning feeling exhausted. On the first day, we spent a whopping seven hours outside, he even napped on a little cot outside for his morning nap, and to my surprise, he slept all night long.

Our experience is backed by the National Sleep Foundation. Exposure to natural light supports our sleep patterns2. Being outside helps regulate the body’s internal clock and allows the body to wind down at night.

When my son started sleeping, I was floored. I took it one step further. We didn’t turn any lights in our house on after the sun went down. We woke when the sun rose and slept when it went down. My goal was for my son’s sleep to improve, and it did. He slept all night every night for that entire week. What I didn’t expect was that my sleep also improved and I woke up feeling refreshed and ready for the day.

More Stamina

When we first began this journey, my children seemed to tire quickly. They would run (and crawl) around for an hour and seem to lose interest in what I had set up. As the week went on, I found their concentration and stamina outside began to lengthen. I observed my one-year-old in a pile of sticks, leaves, and pine straw for 30 minutes. He never once looked up at me or needed my entertainment. I was blown away by his focus and fascination with the nature around him. My children began to get curious—testing the sounds the rocks made when they banged together, looking for worms in the garden bed and watching them slowly disappear into the dirt again, or simply crawling into my lap and silently listening to the birds sing in the morning.

While this may sound idyllic and unattainable, many scientists agree that time in nature restores our energy and enhances our ability to feel calm and focused. Stephen and Rachel Kaplan developed Attention Restoration Theory in the late 1980s, which proposes that exposure to nature improves our ability to concentrate, restores mental fatigue, and can even quicken recovery from injury or surgery3. Though the precise reasons behind these effects are difficult to delineate, many studies have validated the theory over time.

As a tired and often overwhelmed mother of two small toddlers, I found it relieving to see that my children could entertain themselves, find beauty in the world around them, and find a calm yet energetic state while I sat and drank my coffee or did my work on the patio.

Not only do children benefit cognitively, but they also benefit physically. Balance, coordination, core strength, posture, immunity, bone, and muscle strength are all developed and strengthened during active play outdoors.

More Social Connections

After the first three days outside, I was bored. I had been staring at the same backyard for three days. I was ready to do something new. With my commitment to this experiment, I reached out to friends and planned outdoor playdates.

We spent time at parks and out on walks. I was able to connect with friends, and our children could run and play.

I had to fulfill these hours outside, and I couldn’t do it on my own. I had to solicit the help and company of other parents. Without this goal of spending at least 4-6 hours outside, I could have easily isolated myself in my home for an entire week without seeing another person. I was challenged to spend my time in a new way and to seek out the support of other families.

My children enjoyed our outings and seeing their friends, but I was most surprised by how refreshed I felt. Children and adults need human interaction, connection, and shared experiences. I needed this more than I realized. 

Our Challenges

 

While we did see all of these benefits, I won't say that it came without effort, because things did not always go how I imagined. Day two of our week outside didn’t go according to plan. My two-year-old wasn’t feeling well and she just wanted to lay in her cot that we had set outside for downtime. We got a pillow and blankets and she watched a movie on her tablet while we played outside. As the morning went on, she continued to feel sick, so we went inside and I decided to cut our hours short for the day.

Sometimes, despite our beautiful intentions, circumstances change and we have to adapt.

In this experience, I learned that my goal should be to be as intentional as I can about how my children spend their time, but plans can be altered, and goals can be set aside for another day. 

My Takeaway

Our week outside was transformational. Even after our week was over, we continued to spend several hours a day outdoors. There are days when we get busy, illness, or the weather keeps us inside, but my takeaway from this experience is that my children need to be outside for unstructured play for a significant amount of time. They need time to explore, move their bodies, and appreciate the world around them.

“In nature, children learn to take risks, overcome fears, make new friends, regulate emotions, and create imaginary worlds. It’s important that the adult allow children both the time and the space to play outdoors on a daily basis. It’s important that we give them the trust they deserve and the freedom they need to try out new theories and play schemes.”
- Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced and Barefoot4

This Earth Day, I invite you to spend more conscious hours outside. Go to a park, call a friend to join you on a walk, or simply go out to your backyard or explore your own neighborhood. I’d love to hear about your experiences outside!

Footnotes

1 "Yurich, Virginia (Host). (2019, January 28) “The Origin of 1000 Hours Outside”"

2 Suni, E. (2022, April 7). Light & Sleep: Effects on sleep quality. Sleep Foundation. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/bedroom-environment/light-and-sleep

Ackerman, C. E. (2020). What is Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (ART)? PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/attention-restoration-theory/

4 Hanscom, A. J. (2016). Balanced and barefoot: How unrestricted outdoor play makes for strong, confident, and capable children. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.


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