It’s funny how inspiration works and the way an idea can grow. It started with a couple of exposures to the same idea – the idea that no matter how dodgy the weather, children can play outside. I can’t say a seed was planted. It was more like a full-blown tree was transplanted into my mind and one night I couldn’t sleep because of it. I gave up at 1am and got up to Google ‘outdoor playgroups’ to feed the obsession. At 1.01am I heard a ping as an email arrived in my inbox. It was from my sister-in-law, sending a YouTube link about outdoor kindergartens in Norway. I scoured my memory to see if I had mentioned my interest to her, but couldn’t remember a conversation. I assumed I must have spoken to her about it.
Mindful of my slumbering husband in the next room, I rummaged around for earphones so he wouldn’t be startled out of his dreams by a loud Norwegian narrator. I clicked on the link and sat back, entranced as I learned about the idea of sending your kids outside to play all day, every day. As one YouTube clip ended, more popped up. I kept diving down internet rabbit holes, clicking on more and more links about outdoor preschool education.
They illustrated just how good it is for kids’ neurological development to regularly walk over uneven surfaces, (like a rocky seashore), and how imaginative outdoor play is. They showed how confident the kids get at climbing, running and knowing their physical capabilities. I saw how healthy the kids are from being in the open air all the time, and how you can easily give kids a sense of crazy pride by making them do hard stuff – like climb a big hill. Their mantra was simple – “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”
I was getting hooked. In fact, I almost applied for Norwegian residency on the spot. I rang my sister- in-law as soon as it was a decent hour the following morning. No, I hadn’t told her that I was interested in that sort of thing! No, she had no idea that I was researching it too. She had happened upon the link and decided to share it with me. I was stunned. It felt like one of those ‘meant to be’ things. We made a date to take our preschoolers on a bush walk and to discuss the idea further. I was brimming with confidence that we could make a weekly playgroup happen with our group of friends here in East Auckland. Over the next couple of months we started meeting up weekly at different locations in our area and inviting everyone left, right and centre to join us.
Two and a half years later, the outdoor playgroup’s popularity is surging. Like thousands of other locations across the Western world, the movement to take childhood outside again is gaining momentum. Yes, I have done lots of reading about the topic and am somewhat knowledgeable about the (compelling) research supporting it as a brilliant thing to do with my kids. But the main reason I compulsively evangelise about outdoor playgroups is that they tick so many boxes.
In the everyday language of a very ordinary Auckland mum, here are my top reasons why I am hooked.
12 reasons why I love outdoor playgroups
1. Anyone can run one!
I am not an early childhood educator. I don’t particularly have remarkable patience for generating child-focused activities all day. I just love it when my kids can play by themselves. Being outdoors with their buddies seems to encourage this.
2. It costs zip
Nada! No fees! The resource is free and outside all of our front doors. If we are not getting outdoors, aren’t we just missing the most obvious resource that we all have for fun, exercise and mental/spiritual refreshment?
3. The exploring and discovery
All Auckland (and I imagine, the rest of the country) has to offer fills me with gratitude for this amazing city we live in. Beaches, volcanoes, bush walks, wetlands, farms, botanic gardens, flying foxes and playgrounds, lambs and daffodils – most within five minutes drive of my house, at most 15 minutes.
Parents say over and over to me, “Oh, I didn’t even know this was here! And I have lived here my whole life!” It is so satisfying to know that these families are excited about local natural places, and often come back on the weekend with the older school children and dads.
4. The foundation for science
Kids are curious and love to make connections between the spheres of their lives. Outdoor playgroup provides the children with so many new neural pathways. They know about the tides. They know the vocabulary of volcanoes. Our kids found a pregnant gecko under a rotting log during one particular bush walk. They can name the trees that blossom. They intimately observe the changing seasons. They learn to predict the weather. The extent to which they have learned to notice beauty and experience wonder makes this mother feel a sense of enormous achievement.
I just get a buzz out of my kids wearing their gumboots so much that they crack and break, at least twice a year. There is something so adorable about the clompiness and happiness of children in gumboots. I am a farmer’s daughter, and it just feels right to put my kids into gumboots.
6. The love of physical movement
This is one of my favourite parts of the outdoor playgroup. Being outside encourages and requires running, jumping, climbing, throwing. You don’t have to constantly tell the kids to calm down. You just let them go. And then in the afternoon, they are very mellow, after all that energy expenditure!
7. The friendships that just happen
No training needed. My three-year-old son recently put it this way, “How about we find some children, and go and climb trees?” This sums up outdoor playgroup for me. The kids have a physical environment that challenges them, so they play alongside each other contentedly with less conflict.
8. My boys can play with sticks
Every single time.
9. The mums all have fun
One or two will inevitably turn up with their flat whites to go, and make us all jealous! We all sit down on a sandy beach in the middle of winter, bat the shells out of infants’ mouths, and just talk and talk and talk. The older kids get to go further afield without us hovering, and they relish the independence.
10. The natural tactile materials our kids are exposed to
They are so brilliant for their brains and souls. No $2 Shop plastic to be seen. My son, three, said to me the other day as he was gazing out his car window at a hedge, “I yuv (love) green. It’s so relaxing.” Studies have shown that this is indeed the case – that just looking at greenery through a window – let alone being outside, has a soothing and calming effect within minutes. My little boy was spot on with what is happening inside his brain! I was so amazed.
11. I am a calmer, happier mother after a morning outside
My own soul is being refreshed by the natural beauty and the fresh air – my own brain needs just as much calming and soothing as my kids’!
12. The photo collection I have
Anyone would think I have given my kids a magical childhood. By being outside for a whole morning once a week, my kids have had about 120 brilliant adventures over the past two and half years that we would honestly not have had otherwise.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods says, “Throughout history, kids have spent their developing years in nature, playing or working. In our lifetime, that’s going away.” This quote is deeply sad to me, but I do have influence over my own brood. It is my ambition that my kids will have clocked up many many happy hours in nature during their developing years.