For a brief period of time, I, Grace, lived in Seoul with my grandmother in the 1970s, when Korea was still a developing nation. My grandmother didn't know how to raise me and my sister, so we were a bit neglected. As a five-year-old, I would walk and catch the city bus to school across the other side of town, which at the time, seemed like half a day's journey but probably only took about an hour. Morning was always the most stressful time of my waking day, as I hoped to just make it to school in one piece.
I would wake to the rooster in our backyard, as he would cock-a-doodle-doo. The challenge was to leave the house through the back garden without the rooster seeing me, or he would chase and kick me with his feet. Of course, if I saw the rooster I would run back inside.
Once I finally made it through the garden, I recall lazily walking along the residential streets of Korea while catching a few of the hundreds of green caterpillars I would see along the curb. Above me were jujube trees (red dates) ready to grab and eat, which made for a convenient breakfast as I strolled. Sometimes, when I would leave early for school, I would see hibiscus flowers in full bloom, which is the Korean national flower, along the hillside of my home. I would pluck them and blow from the bottom tip of the stem, making a unique horn sound which could only occur before the sun soaked up the dew.
Finally, I would catch the city bus for a long, bumpy ride to only arrive tardy for school most days. The teacher would stop class, and with all eyes on me, she would instruct me to put my palms out and up while using a ruler to repeatedly hit my small hands so hard my palms would be red and blue. I would turn around teary-eyed, not because I was in pain but for the utter embarrassment of getting in trouble.
I despised my time in Korea as a child, to only now look back and see what a gift each day was. I had a sense of freedom that children of today so rarely get to experience, and I now nostalgically write about how precious these adventures were. With the ever-changing landscape of our digital world, here are six reasons why as parents we should encourage spontaneous outdoor play for our families:
. Yes, sun exposure — especially sunburns — can increase the risk of skin cancer; however, it turns out that our bodies need sun
to make vitamin D, a vitamin that plays a crucial role in many bodily processes, from bone development to the health of our immune system. Vitamin D also plays a role in our ability to get a good night's rest and mood stability. Our bodies work best when we allow for the sun to shine on us every day.
2. Exercise. Children should be active for an hour every day according to Harvard Health Medical Journal, and outside play is one way to guarantee activity. Inside exercise is certainly an option; however, outdoor activities, especially those which involve a ball or a bike, encourage active play, which is really the best form of exercise for children.
3. Executive function.
These are the skills that help us plan, prioritize, troubleshoot, negotiate, and multitask
, and they are crucial to our success as human beings. Creativity falls in there, too, which develops while using our imagination to problem-solve and entertain ourselves. These are skills that must be learned and practiced, so let us allow children a window of unstructured play time. They need time alone and with other children, and to be allowed (perhaps forced) to make up their own games, figure things out, and amuse themselves. Being outside gives them opportunities to practice these important life skills.
4. Taking risks.
Children need to take some risks. As parents, this makes us anxious; we want our children to be safe
. But if we keep them in bubbles and never let them take any risks, they won’t know what they can do. This can result in a lack of confidence to face life’s inevitable risks. Yes, you can break an arm from climbing a tree, and yes, you can be humiliated when you try to make a new friend and get rejected. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; the lessons we learn from failure are just as important as those we learn from success.
5. Socialization. Children need to learn how to work together. They need to learn to make friends, how to share and cooperate and how to treat other people. If they only interact within very structured settings, such as school or sports teams, they won’t — they can’t — learn everything they need to know.
6. Appreciation of nature. So much of our world is changing, and not for the better. If a child grows up never walking in the woods, digging in soil, seeing animals in their habitat, climbing a mountain, playing in a stream, or staring at the endless horizon of an ocean, they may never really understand what there is to be lost. The future of our planet depends on our children; they need to learn to appreciate both its beauty and value the resources we depend on.
So, let's try it. Do what our parents did, and simply send your children outside. Even better, go outside with them. Do everything you can to be sure that every child gets to experience the sense of wonder that outside play allows.