We all know the classic scene from older movies, children running through the trees on an epic adventure they have created in their minds. Backpacks on, lunch pails clinking, a bag tied to a stick, off to spend the day with nature and imagination. The scene pans back and there is the calm and domestic looking mother wiping her hands on her apron and waving them goodbye with a reminder to come home when it gets dark. Scenes like this appeal to us so deeply, those children exploring and learning independence. So why is that a scene we never see in our own lives? Is it because there is a busy street out of your front door instead of woods? Or because Junior is inside playing Farmville on his ipad? Or because you simply don’t want to be the mother that ends up on the news because she was “foolish” enough to give her child some freedom. I think it is a combination of all of these things. And though we may not be able to recreate that exact scene for our children in this day and age, I believe we can give them the tools to have those same experiences in a way that works.
Here are some feasible and real tips to allow your children the happy free summer you imagined for them.
1) Ditch the screen time.
Tv’s and Ipads have become a life saver for busy parents who need the kids to entertain themselves for a while. But the fact is they do get in the way of imaginative play. I did a quick poll of my friends and asked how much screen time their kids get. I got anywhere from none at all to 3-4 hours a day. None of these moms are wrong, or bad parents. My son watches Thomas the Train like it’s the most interesting thing in the world. But if you want to encourage them to explore and use their imagination the screens need to be turned off for a while. As my Oma classically said when someone was complaining that their cell phone was constantly ringing, “You know you can turn those things off.” Yes you can. And sometimes you should.
2) Lead By Example.
If you have never opened the door to the back yard and sent the kids out and said “go play, I will see you in a couple hours.” you may have a riot on your hands the first time you do. This is normal. If they do not know how to play alone or make fun without toys or someone playing with them they will feel a bit lost. So start by leading by example. You may surprise yourself how much you also rely on a structured game or your own screen. Go for a walk, don’t take out your phone, don’t bring toys. Pick up a stick, whack a tree, throw a rock in the river. Play with what you find and let your children watch and join in. Before you know if you will be playing the oldschool way.
3) The Adventure Backpack.
I am a huge fan of adventures, and packing well for them. As children my sisters and I often packed up our backpacks and went off to play (Now we pack up picnics and never forget the wine). My son prefers a bucket or wagon to haul his tools for fun along. So what would you put in an adventure backpack? Firstly, snacks and a water bottle or juice cup. This what the imagination play does not have to stop to come in and eat. Secondly some tools or objects that will aid in whatever fun you may encounter. Things like a piece of rope, a small shovel (my son prefers a spoon), a multi-tool or pocket knife for older children, a small blanket or piece of a sheet. As you adventure you will start to build up a good set of fun items to load in your adventure backpack. But remember, these are tools to aid play, not games or toys. The exception to this would be a lovie or special doll that is more of a playmate than a toy. No adventure in our home starts without bunny.
4) Tools vs. Toys
One of the best ways to allow children to create fun for themselves is to let them play with tools rather than toys. What does this mean? Tools allow children to create play with their imagination. Sandboxes full of fun tools are an amazing play option for children, especially if you have limited space. When a child uses their body and mind together to play (like digging) they learn cause and effect, and so much more. Choose tools that are sturdy, but small enough for your child to use easily.
5) Trust Them.
This is the hardest part for many parents. You may think that other children can go and play alone but yours will get hurt, or wreck something, or get dirty. The fact is they might. They will get dirty, and they might break a toy or tool, and they may need a bandaid. We all want to protect our kids from real danger and serious injury. But minor mishaps are an essential part of childhood. From them children learn about their limits and bouncing back. As they play they learn important things like how high they can climb and jump down, how heavy of an object they can pick up without dropping it on their toe, how large of a stick they can swing without losing their balance. Let them fall down, pick them up and encourage them to try again. After all resiliency is one of the most important life skills to have.
5) Send them off.
So you have your backpack packed, now what? Don’t have a yard or a park near home? This is where a place like Kayben Farms is ideal. 12 acres of trees, and paths to explore. Family friendly and safe. Load up the kids and the adventure backpacks and send them on their way. If your children are younger hang back and watch from a distance. They will soon forget you are there. Or join them. Allow them to lead the game, get lost in their fun. Act like a kid again. It’s the sweet moments like this that make the tiring, difficult and all-consuming reality of parenting worth it.
6) Don’t Rush Them.
How many times in a day do you tell your child to hurry up? I know I hear myself say this so often. Hurry up we have to go here or get there. Once they have built the skills to play and explore on their own, give them the time to do so. Set aside an entire afternoon and let them play. A season’s pass to Kayben Farms will give you the freedom to do so. Or sign them up for one of the nature based Summer Day Camps. They can play, explore, interact with animals and contribute to the farm.
Creating space and time allow your children to learn and play on their own isn’t always easy, but I think it is very worth it. Have a happy free summer!