When my children were very young, I was introduced to the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason, an English education reformer who taught and wrote at the turn of the twentieth century. Among the principles she encouraged for all students was a whopping 4-6 hours spent playing outside!
I found that high bar overwhelming at first, but over the years I have seen that Charlotte really knew her stuff - and knew a lot about children instinctively. There’s lots of contemporary research that agrees with her (like here), but first some qualifications before you get scared away!
“In the first place, do not send them; if it is anyway possible, take them; for, although the children should be left much to themselves, there is a great deal to be done and a great deal to be prevented during these long hours in the open air. And long hours they should be; not two, but four, five, or six hours they should have on every tolerably fine day, from April till October.” (Charlotte Mason in her book Home Education)
First, notice that she says this goal applies on “tolerably fine days.” There are definitely days when it’s much more realistic to enjoy indoor pursuits. And second, she’s not advocating sending your littles into the woods unaccompanied for half the day. That is both reassuring for me, and a little annoying. I don’t always want to spend that much time outside! But consider this:
“We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” (also from Home Education)
And, “If getting our kids out into nature is a search for perfection, or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy. It's a good thing to learn more about nature in order to share this knowledge with children; it's even better if the adult and child learn about nature together. And it's a lot more fun.” (Richard Louv from The Last Child in the Woods)
The author of that last quote shares some shocking statistics in his book. He says that children ages six to eleven spend thirty hours a week looking at a t.v. or computer monitor (that’s almost a full time job)! It’s a great place to start for motivation! You can read the introduction on the author’s website here.
For me, getting my kids outside comes down to two important factors. 1. My commitment to making it happen with them, not just for them, and 2. Having some idea of what in the world to do once outside. Even as a nature lover, it takes lots of intention for me to consistently follow through on this ideal.
Everyone has their own threshold for simply enjoying the outdoors with no agenda. If yours is low or you have a child or two who just wants to read a book on the couch (for Heaven’s sake!), it’s very useful to have built-in outdoor responsibilities or planned activities to force everyone out. That does not need to look like organized sports, weekends tent-camping, or a fenced in backyard. There is a world of possibilities out there; here are a few:
Garden – There was a time when I just couldn’t get my head around why people would waste so much energy planting flowers each year that would just die, and weren’t even edible! I also went through a phase of frustration over how much time and money goes into a vegetable garden when there’s plenty of food to be found at the grocer down the street. It wasn’t until I had elementary school children that I understood the experience that gardening provides, and how it’s worth more than any monetary cost/benefit analysis can measure.
My mindset changed when I saw my children wonder at butterflies and other pollinators. When they made the connection between the mint leaves on the plant and the flavor of their favorite gum, something awoke in my own heart – a desire for connection. Over the years, I’ve dallied just a little bit more each year in this sowing and reaping, involving my children as I learn. This Summer I have officially transitioned into that person who putters around in the garden doing who-knows-what, inventing new tasks and preparing every square inch for new plant life.
There are as many different gardens as there are people, and as your garden grows, it becomes it’s own ecosystem – a world in and of itself that might contain plants, but also bird baths, bat houses, mason bees, dragonfly ponds, fairy houses, winding pathways, cozy reading nooks, garden statues, and never-ending inspiration for your children. And you can start anywhere! One pot, one plant, one tree…
Care for Animals – If there’s anything children get even more enthusiastic about than the opportunity to dig in the dirt, it’s spending time with animals. I know pets can be a big commitment, and I didn’t feel ready to take any on until I had several years of parenting under my belt. If you have a dog, involve the kids in walking him. Actually, cats, bunnies, and ferrets sometimes like walks, too!
Last year we finally succumbed to the backyard-chicken trend, but instead of doing it like normal people, we got ducks. They are irresistibly adorable, and a ton of work/mess, but let me tell you – having them has been the BEST motivator for outside time. We have to go out and tend to them at least twice a day, and cleaning their coop and run, finding them weeds to snack on or letting them forage, and filling their pool so they can swim on hot days adds lots and lots of little moments toward our daily outdoor-time goal.
A year into having them, we still love them. We’ve also introduced chickens into the mix! Neighbors and friends come over just to see and play with our birds, and I choose a different child to help me with them and the garden every morning.
Nature Walks – Here in Alaska, natural beauty is everywhere. Honestly, a walk through our neighborhood is a nature walk. If you are similarly blessed, please take advantage of it! Walking is one of the most accessible forms of exercise, and adventure only requires your own two feet! It’s even worth it to drive somewhere a bit of a distance from your home or city to get the chance to walk! If you plan on being out of the house for hours and hours, make sure to grab snacks and water!
You can, of course, still receive lots of benefits from a fast-paced point a to point b walk, but consider slowing down. Every dandelion in a side-walk crack, caterpillar on a tree, sparkly rock, and helicopter maple seed contains mysteries for you and your children to dwell on. I know that might sound romantic – and it is – but it’s also true.
Nature Journaling – This is another activity that I was unfamiliar with before being introduced to Charlotte Mason. It’s intimidating for nearly everyone in the beginning, so don’t feel bad if you were tempted to skip past this idea.
A nature journal can be as organized or haphazard as you want. It can be filled with gorgeous watercolor portraits of your nature finds, poems inspired by your walks, pressed flowers, or simply pencil sketches of the animals you see on your way. There are no rules. Nature journaling is a tool to hone your observation skills.
When my family was getting used to the idea of nature journaling, I would tell them to find one thing that was interesting on their walk (and I would do the same) to bring home. Then when we got there, we’d look up information about those things (my kids seem to always choose moss or fungi) if possible, then spend time drawing them. No one judges each other’s skill. Then we label them. The end.
If nature journaling sounds like something you’d like to really dive into, there’s an awesome free resource that’s quite extensive on John Muir Laws website. I plan to take my children through it this year, but even just reading through the material will help you feel more confident. His whole site is full of great tips.
Another, simpler, version of a nature journal is a Calendar of Firsts. It can be as low-key as a single-sheet list of everything you see for the first time each year. Or you can get really creative with the format. Here’s a great post all about this concept.
Outdoor Groups – I struggled with post partum depression with some of my children. I heard about how adequate vitamin d could make a difference, but the thing about depression is that you don’t want to do anything, right? For accountability, I started an outdoor group for local homeschoolers. I chose someplace to meet each week. And people showed up! Eventually, planning each week become too stressful (after another baby was born), so some of the mom-friends I’d made each took a week to help shoulder the burden. We’ve been meeting weekly for five years!
You can certainly do as I did and start your own group, but you probably don’t have to. If you homeschool, see if there is a Wild + Free group in your area. The group I began is now listed in that directory! If you have younger children, try Hike It Baby. Other searches that might lead you to an established group in your area are nature schools, forest preschools, and outdoor networks. You are not alone in your desire to make healthy changes!
Geo-caching – I have friends who purposely travel to other cities for new geo-caching experiences. That’s what they travel for – not tourist attractions. And what’s fascinating about geo-caching is that it’s like a secret club – you are unlikely to every stumble upon a geocache accidentally. The point is that they are hidden.
Geocaching is like hunting for treasure as a family – along with hundreds of other families just like you, but one at a time. You can also hide treasures for others along with super-fun clues. We once found a geocache INSIDE a toy spider INSIDE a metal cover on a light-post. Sound fun? Here’s how you get started: https://www.geocaching.com/play
Zoos and parks – When we were a young couple with zero fun-money, we asked the grandparents for a zoo membership for Christmas. It was the best decision ever. Yes, the animals were in artificial environments and we were strolling along paved sidewalks, but even though we went to the zoo almost every week, my littles found something new to be enchanted by every single time.
Another great aspect of visiting zoos and nature parks is that they are great meet-up places for friends who maybe don’t have the room to host lots of children and their energy. My mom-group made sure we all had passes, or could use someone else’s as a guest, and then loaded up our strollers to peruse the zoo at the same time and get some adult conversation in while the children were entertained. Winter was actually the best time to go, because even though there were fewer animals out, there were also fewer people to dodge with toddlers.
And yes, playground and park time counts!! It’s 100% ok if you are a city-dweller and mostly hang out by the swingsets and splashpads. Want to challenge yourself? Make a list of all of the parks in your area and try to hit them all this year! Have your kids help you compare and rate them in order of their favorites!
Every minute spent outside is a win in my book. We are so fortunate to live in an age of technology, universal education, and amazing opportunity, but we still need to work to maintain our foundation.
"My job is to allow their feet to walk the paths of wonder,
to see that they form relations to various things,
so that when the habit is formed,
they will carry an appreciation for nature with them throughout their lives."
-- Karen Andreola, Pocketful of Pinecones
Anjanette Barr is wife to a librarian,
homeschooling mom to four,
and ENFP enthusiastic pursuer of all hobbies (until she finds a new one).
She currently lives on a micro-homestead in Juneau Alaska
where she babies her ducks, chickens,
wild roses, garden,
Siamese cat, and worm farm
in addition to her family.
You can find out more about her and her published books at: