The Importance of Outdoor Play
“It is not our job to make sure our kids don’t get bored. Actually, boredom is the number one thing that breeds creativity. When you get rid of all that, and you send them outside in the rain, or the mud, and they have to find a stick, or a log, and they end up coming together and working as a team, and the worlds that my children create when they’re outside are absolutely incredible to me. And the stories that they live out when they’re out there, because you’ve taken everything away, and they have to use their creativity.”
Above all, Aby Rinella is a follower of Jesus, but she is also a lover of the outdoors. She writes and speaks on homeschooling, motherhood, parental rights, the culture war, and more, and she has a passion for encouraging and inspiring women to live the life they were designed to live.
Yvette Hampton: Aby’s first visit to the Schoolhouse Rocked Podcast to talk about “The Why of Homeschooling” has been, by far, one of the most popular episodes we’ve ever done. We have gotten such a great response from that episode, and letters that have come in from some listeners tell how God has worked through that episode and really encouraged their hearts as to why they are homeschooling, or why they are choosing to homeschool in the coming school year.
Today, we are going to be talking about something that we haven’t talked much about, A while back we had someone ask us to talk about the importance of outdoor play, and I thought, “this is the perfect one for Aby”, because the Rinellas are a huge outdoors kind of family.
Aby, tell us what that looks like for your family.
Aby Rinella: Well, my husband and I have three kids, in fifth grade, second grade, and soon to be kindergarten. We very outdoors oriented before we had kids. We loved to do anything and everything outdoors, and we happen to live in a mountain town. We loved to hike, backpack, fish and hunt, and that’s just kind of who we were and what we did.
So when we had kids, we really just didn’t believe that that part of our life needed to end. We believed that God had given us these kids, and we could work them into that. So from the day we first had our children, they have been out with us. You know, three days out of the hospital with one of my kids, we were out hunting with that child, and so it’s really been the way that my kids have been raised. But really, we spend, I would say, more time outdoors than anything else, and we have been taking our kids with us from the beginning and all throughout. It’s really important to our family, but more than that we really think it’s really beneficial to our kids as a whole.
Yvette: Yeah, you and I lead completely parallel lives in a lot of ways, and completely separate lives, in a lot of ways, and it’s so funny when I talk to you and we, you know, you talk about you guys being outside, because you live in Idaho, where it is stinking freezing cold. Now, I’m a southern California girl, and we’ve been in Georgia for a little while, but I’m in the part of the world where it’s hot. And even through the wintertime, it’s not unusual for us to wear shorts and a T-shirt, because it can still be hot. It gets cold too, but that’s unheard of in Idaho, you would… well, I don’t know, maybe you would wear shorts in the middle of winter. But typically, it’s really cold there.
And so, you, even through your homeschool time, you still find ways even in the snow and in the middle of winter, to get outside and experience just the beauty of God’s creation. And now we’re getting into summertime, and so people are finding different ways to spend time outside with their kids. How is summer break unique to homeschool families, and how can we make that fun for our kids?
Aby: I’ve given that a lot of thought. I think summer break is really unique to homeschool families, in that, with many families who send their kids to school all year, it takes them a while to acclimate to being home, and to being together. Those siblings haven’t been together a lot, and it takes mom a little bit of time to kind of get her footing when there’s kids under her feet all day, and that’s kind of new to them. Or kids come home in the summer, and they haven’t seen their toys in all year, they’ve been so busy, and so a lot of those kids are really content to sit inside and rediscover those things.
Homeschooling is unique in that we’ve been together all year, and we don’t need to re-acclimate when it’s break time. So summer break, I feel like, for everybody but especially for homeschoolers, is really an opportunity to get outside, do some of the things outside that we normally do together, because we’re still together, we’re still learning and growing all summer long. And I think summer’s also a great opportunity for those that historically don’t spend a lot of time outside, to get out. The weather’s a little nicer, it’s a little easier, honestly. So for homeschooling families, our kids don’t have the newness of being home in the summer, so it’s a great opportunity to really get out of the house and enjoy that time.
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Yvette: Yeah, it is. I’ve really had to work on that myself, with getting my kids outside, and being comfortable with it. When we were back in California several years ago, Brooklyn was pretty little, and we had bought a new house, and we had this beautiful backyard put in with a big playset, and grass and everything. But before that was put in, there was just dirt in the backyard. And she would go out there, and she would play for hours and hours in the dirt, and I really had a hard time with that, because I was not a kid who played in the dirt.
I wanted my hands always to be clean, I still am like that. I never gardened, or did anything, because I can’t stand the feeling of dirt on my hands. And so when she would do that, it would kind of freak me out, because I was like, “Her hands are dirty. I don’t know what to do with this!” And we had this backyard put in with the grass and everything. And I vividly remember, she was probably four years old when we had this done, and she went outside, and she looked at me, and she goes, “Mommy, where’s the dirt?”
And I was like, “We just spent all this money to make this beautiful, park-looking backyard, with a swing set, and grass.” And I thought it was the greatest thing ever, but she was disappointed, because she didn’t have dirt!
So she found a little area… I mean she did, of course, play in the grass and on the swing set, but she found this little area of our backyard where the grass didn’t grow very well, because it never really got sun, and that was her dirt area. And she would go out and she would find worms and enjoy the dirt. It took me quite a long time to actually get comfortable with her playing in the dirt.
Aby: Honestly for kids, I believe wholeheartedly… I mean, I know, Biblically, that’s how they’re designed. That’s how we’re created. We were created in the Garden, we were created… I mean, before sin crept in, the ideal setting for a human was outdoors in the Garden. We really didn’t even need shelter, because there were no storms, and all that we needed shelter from. So kids are, it’s in them, and the only way we get it out of them is by training it out of them, by pulling them inside, or giving them the perfect grass lawn. And then we kind of train that deep, that what’s inside of them, out of them, because there’s not a kid early on that doesn’t love to be outside and play.
And you know, we as a culture, we’re such a clean culture, we’re so, “Sanitize your hands,” but honestly the physical benefits of kids being in dirt, it’s shown scientifically to boost their immune systems, honestly. And it’s so good for them, and it breeds just so much creativity, too, like she was out there coming up with new games, right? And inventing things that were fun for her to do. So it’s in every kid, and it’s just our job as a parent to not train that out of them. And if you have older kids, you can get that back, because it’s in all of us, it just, we have to do it.
Yvette: So, what are some ways, practical ways, that you can do that? If you’re maybe a family who is not a big outdoorsy family, your kids don’t go play in the dirt, how can you encourage that in them? What are some things that you can do? Because I imagine, now my girls, they have kind of I think a balance of indoor play and outdoor play, but I’m always surprised at the things they can come up with when they’re outside. What are some practical ways that people can instill that in their kids, and help them to become creative? Though I know they don’t always need help being creative, but…
Aby: Right, they don’t. But we need to get them back to that state. I think the first thing a parent can do is just find the passion themselves. Like, eliminate… Like you said, it took you a while to get used to that. But I think one of the ways that parents can just fuel that in their kids, is themselves knowing how good it is for the kid. You know, in the last two decades, it’s unbelievable the changes that we’ve seen in kids. It’s now, the average child now spends 30 minutes a day with unstructured play outside, and seven hours a day… this statistic blows my mind every time I read it… in front of a screen.
It’s totally shifted in the last two decades, so we as parents need to un-train that in ourselves, and retrain what’s best for our kids, and just educate ourselves knowing that physically, outdoor play is so beneficial for our kids. It’s good for their health, it’s good for their mental health, there’s less depression and anxiety in kids that play outside. ADHD symptoms immediately drop when they’re outdoors, and that’s why after working in the public school a lot, kids are often on ADHD medications in the school to get them to be still. But parents take them off in the summer, and that’s because when they’re playing outside, it’s not just that they’re allowed to be free, but also it lowers those symptoms. Because it’s just a release for them to be out there, and they use their creativity, and they get fresh air, and vitamin D, and it’s just physically good for kids.
The academic benefits, also, when they study schools that have, like, environmental programs, or more recess, those kids are scoring higher on tests. They’re doing better in all across the board academically. So we as homeschool parents, we just have the freedom to do it anytime we want. We can, our kids can be outside any time they want, because it’s physically, emotionally and mentally good for our kids.
I think when parents get on board with that, then it’s going to be easier to facilitate ways of getting our kids out there. So I think that’s probably the first step, is knowing how good it is for our kids, and then how to actually do it, it really depends on where you live. I know not everybody lives like we do, not everybody’s going to go spend nine days in the back country with their kids. But it doesn’t have to be that, honestly, it can be a community garden, just having your hands in the dirt in a community garden.
Or if you have a child that loves to read, just send them outside to read. Find a stream, find a park, find somewhere outside and take them and do what they already love to do outside. So those are really good ways of just practically doing it. Go for walks, ride your bike, it really does come naturally once you start doing it, because you naturally feel better, and you see the benefits in your kids. So those are some practical ways, whether you’re living rurally, obviously if you live rurally it’s a lot easier, but there’s so many ways anywhere you live to be outside.
Yvette: Yeah, I think being intentional about it is a big thing for people. For moms especially, like myself, who it doesn’t come naturally to me. You know, my kids don’t… I mean they have very little screen time, but they also don’t go outside nearly as much as I think that they should be outside, and so it’s really, for myself, I have to be intentional about them going outside, and playing, and doing the things that they should be doing, and just being creative.
But one of the things that I find for myself, and this might sound really weird, to somebody like you. But one of the things I find for myself is that I become fearful of them getting ticks, or getting sunburned, or… There are all these fears, you know, that there’s going to be a snake outside, or something. And so I really have to check myself and just think, “Okay, God made the outdoors, it’s okay, and if something happens, well then we deal with it at the time.” But not living in fear all the time of something terrible happening to them. And I know that’s a strange fear.
Aby: For me, when I go to a place where it’s very congested with people, I feel that same fear that you fear. Like that, “Oh my goodness, people’s germs, and the disease,” and so I really believe that that kind of fear just comes from what you’re used to, what you’re familiar with. If you’re not familiar with the outdoors, but what an awesome opportunity then to go to the library and get books on what kind of organisms live where we live. What’s growing in our yard? What kind of animals? Let’s do a snake study, so that we can identify a rattlesnake versus a boa. Which animals live out there, and also, to really teach your kids that we do need to be aware. We live in an area where there are a lot of rattlesnakes, so my kids have identified rattlesnakes.
But to release that fear, and know, but also to speak to kind of probably more moms that are more like you, than me, it doesn’t have to be that you’re going out into the middle of nowhere. It can honestly just be that when your kid wants to do watercolor paints, you lay a blanket out in the yard, and let them watercolor out there, because they’re still getting the fresh air, they’re getting the sun. It doesn’t have to be extreme. We are probably more extreme than most, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The benefits of your kids being out, it doesn’t have to be extreme.
Go take them to a garden center, and pick out plants, and pots, and bring them home and let them plant. And even just that, there’s your biology. You’ve got so much you can learn in the outdoors as well, giving kids a hands-on approach rather than reading about it. So those are some ways that parents can work that into their kids’ lives.
Yvette: Yeah, even going out in the rain. You know, when I was a kid we didn’t go out in the rain. It’s so funny. My mom always thought, “Well if you go out in the rain, you’re going to catch a cold.” And we’ve since learned that that is not true. Not true. And so I remember years ago, we used to have an exchange student from China, she lived with us, this was about four years go. And she lived with us for the whole school year, and one day, she was at home with us one day, and it started raining, but it was summertime, and it was pretty unusual for it to rain in the middle of summer where we lived in California.
But this one day it started raining, and it was really warm outside, or it was maybe late spring, but it was really warm outside, and so it wasn’t freezing cold or anything. And the girls said, “Can we go outside and just play in the rain?” And I was like, my first instinct was, “Of course not, why would you do that? You stay inside when it rains.” And then I thought, “Why not? It’s not going to hurt them.” And so they went outside, and I mean they… It was pouring. It was a torrential downpour, and they got drenched, and they had, they still talk about that until this day.
And I remember our Chinese exchange student, she came outside, and she looked at them, she was like, “What are they doing?” I said, “They’re playing in the rain,” she said, “Oh, we would never do that in China. Our parents would never, ever, ever let us do something like that.” And so it’s a cultural thing, for people too, but it was just so fun. And they still, like you said, they still talk about that day where they go to go outside and just play in the rain, and get completely soaking wet. And it was just, it was a fun thing for them to do. And so often I have to ask myself, why not? Like, what’s wrong with them wanting to do this? Why can’t they do it?
Aby: Yep. Why do I feel the way that I feel about them going outside? Why do I fear the things I fear? Why can’t they go in the rain? And I think one of the most, one thing that I love about homeschooling so much is that because we’re not bound by anyone else’s schedule, we tend to school around the weather. Like if it’s a day that they want to go outside, then that’s when our spring break is. Then that’s when they go outside. And if it’s a day when… you know, it’s been raining here for 10 days, which is not super normal for us, but for the first few days they were outside playing in the rain, and they loved it, and they played… I mean, the creativity that comes out of a kid when you get rid of the craft closet, and you get rid of the iPads, and you get rid of all the things that we feel it’s our job to make sure our kids aren’t bored – It’s our job to make sure that our kids have structured play.
When you really look at that, and you say, “That was really never God’s design for a parent. It is not our job to make sure our kids don’t get bored.” Actually, boredom is the number one thing that breeds creativity. When you get rid of all that, and you send them outside in the rain, or the mud, and they have to find a stick, or a log, and they end up coming together and working as a team, and the worlds that my children create when they’re outside are absolutely incredible to me. And the stories that they live out when they’re out there, because you’ve taken everything away, and they have to use their creativity.
It’s so good for them. It’s so good for their minds, and their bodies, and honestly it really goes back, I mean everything we do, and everything we believe, we go back to the Bible and we say, “Well what does God say about this?” And over, and over, and over in scripture, it talks about our relationship with God’s creation. And even in Psalm 23, when it talks about, “I’ll lie down in green pastures, and he leads me beside still waters,” he uses the image of nature for peace. For peace, you know? And in so many places in scripture, and if we can link to these, but Job 12, and Romans one, and Genesis one, it just constantly talks about how we can see God’s character in nature.
How it tells that the birds rely on him, and the animals need nothing, because they’ve been provided with everything. And when you get your kids out there, and really see God’s creation, it shows you the character of their creator, and it shows you so much about who God is. And so, we have to shake what we’ve been trained, and realize this is who they were designed to be, this is how they were created to even relate to God through his creation. They were designed to relate to him through his creation. So we have to shake this new, our cultural idea that we need to provide all these activities for our kids, and provide all these things for our kids, and every moment of their day has to be filled. Because that’s really not what’s best for them.
Yvette: I think oftentimes, when we think about homeschooling, we think about the academic part of homeschooling, and them sitting. Like, I know in my mind, I think well, “Okay, when we do school, we’re going to sit down and do a math lesson, or read together, or spelling, or whatever.” But being outdoors is such an important part of their academic being and development as well. And so we need to, yeah, I mean there’s a reason why schools have recess, because kids need to get out, they need to play. And so I think as homeschool moms, giving ourselves permission that that is just as important as them sitting down and reading, or sitting down and doing math. They’ve got to be out moving.
And even the exercise that comes with it. I mean, you think about young kids, and they naturally run. They just do, everywhere they go, I don’t know why, but they just run. And they go outside, and the first thing they do is run. And Lacey will tell me all the time, she’s like, “Mom, I have to get outside. I’ve got to get my wiggles out.” She’ll tell me that, it’s so funny. And she just needs to move.
Aby: And they jump, and they climb, and it’s all a part of, and we’re constantly saying, you know, “Don’t jump on the furniture. Don’t climb on the table. Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.” And really, we have to stop and say, “This is how you’re designed.” And even developmentally, children, they need to be able to do that to develop their body, and their muscles, and their sense of equilibrium and their balance. All of that, even just walking, they’ve done studies on, kids need to walk on uneven ground for their own mental equilibrium. It helps their brains develop, and when they’re indoors all day, being told to be still, stop jumping, don’t run, don’t climb, it’s mentally not good for children. It stunts their development, honestly.
Yvette: Right, right. I recently started reading a book, we were in Franklin, Tennessee, back in March, staying with some sweet friends of ours, the White family. And they live on this farm, and this farm is amazing. They’ve got all kinds of animals, and they’ve got a fun tree house, and they kind of have this, a little bit of a wooded area, it’s so cute, the kids call it the deep, dark woods. And my kids have so much fun playing with their kids. And they’ll be out there for hours, and hours, and hours, building forts, climbing the trees, playing with the animals, gardening. I mean they do so many things, and it’s so good for them.
She recommended this book to me, I think it’s called Balanced and Barefoot, or Barefoot and Balanced, one or the other. I’ll link to it, actually, in the show notes, because I started reading it, and I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s such a good book. And it talks about exactly what you were talking about, how it’s just so very important for kids to be outside, and to have that outdoor play. And for their balance, and for their… I mean there are so many parts of a child’s development that plays into them being outdoors, and just expressing themselves physically, through active play, and not sitting, and being in front of a tablet, or in front of a screen.
So, let me ask you this question then, because obviously there are so many kids who they sit in front of the screen all day, they sit… Even kids who sit in front of a book all day, because I know there are a lot of homeschool kids who do that. They love to read, and praise God, that’s a great thing for them, there’s so much good literature out there that they can read. But they will literally just close themselves into this little bubble of their fantasy land book, and they won’t get out, and exercise, and play, and experience the outdoors.
So what do you do with that child who maybe mom says, and maybe it has not been a good practice for this family, but now mom’s listening to this, and she’s like, “Oh, okay, maybe my kids need to get outside more,” but her kids are so used to being indoors, and glued to a book, or glued to their tablets, or something. Talk to that mom who maybe is going to have that struggle, and that battle, with their kid, who their kid is going to say, “I don’t want to go outside. It’s hot,” or, “It’s humid,” or, “It’s cold,” or whatever. How can she fight that battle with them?
Aby: I would first say to her, get rid of the mom guilt. Most moms, their kids are indoors, in front of a screen, in front of something. So I would immediately say it’s not too late. It’s not too late, it doesn’t mean… You know, it’s easier when you start kids little, I mean to the new moms listening, it’s easier when you start them brand new outside, where that’s just their world. That will make your life easier. But it’s not too late. Teenagers need to be outside as much as little kids. Since we have been a generation that have brought teens in, and plugged them in, our depression rates have gone higher. Our bullying, violence, all these things, the rates of those things have gone up, as our outdoor time has gone down.
So, teens need to be outside. Adults need to be outside, just as much. I’d say to the mom whose kid is bucking it, it’s not really that different than when your kid bucks you to eat healthy, or when your kid bucks you for anything. You have to remember that you know what’s best for your kid, and you want to do what’s best for your kid. But some practical things are, I think what you’ll notice first is when they go outside, they’re going to grumble and complain, and grumble and complain. And this is boring, and this is hot, and it’s too cold, and there’s nothing to do.
And even my kids, who are, they live, eat and breathe outdoors, sometimes they’re like, “We’re bored.” And I always realize that if I said, “Okay, then come in, let’s do something else,” they have to work through the boredom, and then all of a sudden the creativity breaks loose. So let them be bored. Don’t get sucked into their grumbling and complaining. Let them be bored out there.
And you can give them things to do, too. For example, if you have a very techy kid, a kid that has been in front of a screen their whole lives, and now all of a sudden you want them outside, that is going to be a shock to their system. So I would say, for example, let’s take your phone outside, and let’s make videos outside. Or let’s take pictures, and then I want you to make a really cool slideshow, or video, or I don’t know, if your kid is on social media, do a whole Instagram story sequence of all the cool things that you found in nature, and make it appealing to them with what they already love to do.
So, you can take technology into the outdoors. I mean, we see it all the time now, where if you have a child that, like you said, “Just don’t get me out of a book, I mean, I want to read all day, don’t try to do this outdoors thing with me now, I’m 15 and I just want to be lost in my books,” then that’s okay. So take your book and go sit by a creek. It is just as beneficial to put your feet in a creek, sit on the dirt bank with the sun shining on you and reading your book. So you can take who your kids already are, and what they already have going on, and take that into the outdoors. It doesn’t, we’re not trying to recreate people into being this outdoors family, we’re trying to make the outdoors work for everybody. And it does, it will naturally.
I think one way to spark interest in younger kids, or even older kids, is through books. There are so many really neat books about nature. Even Swiss Family Robinson, when you read that to a kid, and then you send them outside, it is unbelievable how they reenact books in the outdoors. So if you want to work more of the outdoors into your kids’ indoor life, read books about adventure, and outdoor play. And there’s so many great picture books that get kids excited about being outside, and I have a list of ones that my kids love that we could link to. But that sparks kids’ interests in the outdoors, and then when they go outside, you’ll see them naturally reenact or explore what they’ve read about.
So those are really great ways to introduce the outdoors to kids that have not previously been out there.
Yvette: Oh, that is such great advice, and yes, we’ll link to the book list that you have, that would be great. Because it’s really hard to just go to the library and look for books on nature. Here’s your five million, here are your five million options!
Great Books about the Outdoors
Books for Parents
Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children ~ Angela J. Hanscom
Hands Free Mama: A Guide to Putting Down the Phone, Burning the To-Do List, and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters! ~ Rachel Macy Stafford
Miss Rumphius ~ Barbara Cooney
The Curious Garden ~ Peter Brown
The Gardener ~ Sarah Stewart
RoxaBoxen ~ Alice McLerran
Blueberries for Sal ~ Robert McCloskey
Make Way for Ducklings ~ Robert McCloskey
The Swiss Family Robinson ~ Johann David Wyss
My Side of the Mountain ~ Jean Craighead George
Call of the Wild ~ Jack London
The Bears on Hemlock Mountain ~ Alice Dalgliesh
The Sign of the Beaver ~ Elizabeth George Speare
Hatchet ~ Gary Paulson
Encouraging Scripture for enjoying the outdoors
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” ~ Psalm 23:1-2 (ESV)
“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.” ~ Job 12:7-10 (ESV)
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” ~ Romans 1:19-20 (ESV)
“God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.” ~ Genesis 1:10 (ESV)
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” ~ Psalm 19:1-2 (ESV)