What does free play look like in a natural setting? Is it really and truly free? How do we keep kids safe while letting them push the limits and immerse themselves in their own world?
Junior is perched on a tree branch, leaning from side to side as he hums the sound of a buzzing propellor plane. He dodges imaginary projectiles, adding sound affects. On the ground not far away Little Bear, knees muddy and face smeared, is stacking logs and chattering away in a crackly deep voice, enacting both sides of a conversation between himself and “Worker Man.” With much fanfare, Junior tumbles to the soft dirt below, then rolls down a slope dramatically, his hair gathering hay as he goes. Little Bear glances up, then joins him in the dizzying descent. They are rolling, rolling, rolling down a gently sloping field of hay and dandelions. Soon they are laughing loudly in a heap of marsh grass and mud, hair matted and hands caked.
To the kids, this feels completely and utterly free. To the bystander, it looks like complete chaos. To me, it is the perfect balance and all within the bounds of carefully developed rules that we play by when we’re exploring outside.
Setting kids loose in nature can be intimidating, especially if it’s something that you’re not used to. But free play isn’t entirely free. By setting reasonable limits and creating logical rules, kids can explore freely and have a positive experience without feeling restricted or bound by arbitrary limits. Because our rules are based in logic that is easily explained to them, the kids rarely question them. They aren’t just rules governed by adults; they are rules governed by nature.
Here are eight rules we play by when we’re free playing outdoors.
- We are guests here. When we explore the forest or the beach or the park or a meadow, we are exploring a living habitat. All sorts of creatures big and small make their homes in these places and when we’re here, we’re guests. We don’t have to leave everything exactly as we found it, but if we don’t, we should leave it a little better than before. We might gather fallen leaves and sticks to build a fairy house for others to discover. We might simply pick up some trash and pack it out to the parking lot dumpster with us when we go. Sometimes we clear fallen brush off a walking path. Other times we delicately leave everything exactly as we found it. However we change the environment we’re in, it should somehow be for the benefit of others.
- Know your neighbors. Because we are guests in these habitats, it’s our job to know who we’re visiting. Teach your children to identify any hazardous insects, snakes, or other animals likely to live here and make sure they know what to do if they encounter one. Similarly, teach them to avoid plants like poison ivy or stinging nettles. Kids who know the potential risks in their environment aren’t just more likely to avoid them; they’re also more confident in exploring their environment independently.
Yelling and screaming means something is wrong or about to go wrong. This may sound overbearing when you want to let your kids go wild, but there is a difference between the sort of gleeful yipping that I often hear in the woods from my boys and the fierce shouting that signals a real problem. The only reason to really truly scream is if there is an emergency or we need to get someone’s attention urgently. Of course there are occasional exceptions to this rule, like when we take the boat under a bridge and shout to hear our voices echo or when we howl at a full moon. But generally, everyone in the group should be on the same page and understand that yelling signals something important. This way, if I hear screaming through the woods, I know to respond quickly. Likewise if the boys hear me shout, they know to pay attention as someone’s safety may depend on it.
- Keep an eye to the sky. Always know what kind of weather to expect for the day and plan accordingly. Even with the best laid plans, know that weather can change suddenly and teach your children to be aware of the subtle signs that storms could be brewing. Be aware of changes in wind strength and direction. In addition to feeling the wind, teach kids to watch for the wind in trees and across water. Identify different cloud types and know which signal approaching storms. General awareness of their surroundings will come more and more naturally for them the more they experience a changing environment.
Climb it yourself, or don’t climb it at all. Want to climb? Great. I’m not helping. This one sounds a little harsh at first but it’s a good way to create self-enforcing boundaries. I’m not crazy about the idea of my kids scaling piles of logs or scurrying up slippery rock slopes and I know there will be times when they will fall. But rather than constantly scurrying around after them, trying to be there to catch them when they do, I make sure they aren’t too high to start with by only allowing them to climb things that they can climb on their own. Need a boost to get started up that tree? Nope, sorry. Want a hand shimmying up that boulder? You’re on your own. I’m happy to act as coach and I often do, but when it comes to offering a physical boost, they know I’m not there to help. If they can’t get up on their own, they’ll need to wait until they’re a little taller or a little stronger and try again.
- Stay close. Now that the boys are getting a little older, I’m not so worried about having my eyes on them every second while they explore, but I do need to know that they’re close. When we’re in the woods and they are wandering around on their own, we agree on physical boundaries before they set off. It could be the creek, the trail, or a ridge line. The same goes for when we are on the beach, though sometimes here it’s easiest to literally draw a line in the sand at the furthest acceptable point. If we are going to be in one place for several days as when we’re camping, I use fluorescent flagging tape on trees to mark limits. Just make sure to remove it before you go.
- Sticks are tools, not weapons, and as with all tools, they come with responsibilities. What is it with kids and sticks? My boys are drawn to them like pigs to mud. No even better, kids to mud. Long, short, fat, thin, green or rotting, they don’t discern. But we draw the line at using sticks as weapons. No sword fights. No light sabers. No jousting. Sticks are great tools for hiking and building. Sometimes the boys pretend they’re hammers and hit them mightily against tree stumps or rocks. Sometimes they use them for building shelters. But we never use them for fighting and we have to be smart with them. We don’t run with sticks, we don’t swing them near other people, and the only reason we lug around a stick bigger than our arm is to build with it.
- Know when to ask for help. Tell kids to trust their gut and if something feels wrong or scary, ask for help. Teach children to find their caregiver if they or someone else is hurt, sad or scared. Also teach them to tell a grownup if they see something that could hurt them, like broken glass or a hornets nest.
Free play outside has amazing benefits for kids of all ages. By creating logical boundaries to guide their play, we provide an added layer of security for them. Kids can play more independently and more confidently when they know how to watch out for themselves.