When my older daughter was two, I had her in a gymnastics class. We didn’t live in the woods back then and it seemed like a great way to allow her to get the exercise she craved. I’m a big proponent of exercise and sports for kids and adults, but I didn’t like that she had to be stuck inside for that class even on beautiful days and the drive was 25 minutes each way! Later, I signed her up for soccer and the commitment of taking her to soccer every Saturday morning became a burden that none of us enjoyed.
Now that we live in the woods with a big yard, I encourage her to build her muscles using the landscape. It saves money plus we’re all happier when we can relax in nature and play on our own terms.
Now, at 5, she climbs trees on her own, balances across fallen logs, and sprints down the trail. My younger daughter, who is almost 3, does her best to keep up with her big sister, almost always preferring to run and play barefoot, which builds muscles, tendons and ligaments in her feet to develop a more natural gait. Running barefoot also helps build smaller muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and hips that are responsible for better balance and coordination. Her growing ability to catch herself on her short, toddler legs and feet and avoid injury is amazing to see.
We also play an array of chasing and hiding games in the woods and in our yard that keep us bonded as a family and keeps our fitness up year-round.
Sports, in contrast, seem to come hand-in-hand with emotional distress, disconnects between parents and their kids, and injuries. According to the US National Library of Medicine, there have been 2.6 million emergency room visits a year for kids ages 5 – 24, with a 70% – 80% attrition rate by the time the child is 15 years old. It recommends waiting until age 6 to begin organized sports. (Oops!) Often coaches, parents, and kids overemphasize winning rather than having fun, leading to stress, family discord, and a greater potential for injuries.
It’s not all bad to play sports, of course. Reducing child obesity and teen depression, improving cognitive development, and setting children up to live healthier, longer lives are great reasons to encourage your kids to stay active.
But, what’s amazing about the great outdoors is it can meet nearly every need a child has. It can be a sport without the over-competitiveness. Or, a team sport without the stress. Spending time in nature boosts the self-esteem and a feeling of belonging. It’s fun, exercise, and an academic pursuit all in one! It teaches grit, which means the ability to get through difficult or uncomfortable situations, a trait that leads to career success.
What better way to teach strategy than capturing the flag with a group of kids at night in a wooden setting? Or teach grit by taking a backpacking trip with friends and family? Or teach preschoolers science by catching frogs together and looking for frog eggs and tadpoles?
As I teenager, I ran long-distance and loved taking my runs to the forest. Hopping over and running across logs, navigate over and under foliage, and avoiding wet spots all make for a great physical and mental workout that leaves you energized and connected to the world around you.
On the nature connection side of this, when running the woods (or anywhere outside), you’re more likely to see deer, foxes, owls, opossums, and raccoons because you can run so fast the animals don’t have time to hide or run. Then, you can find their tracks, trails, and den!
You can never LOSE when you’re racing against yourself in the woods. Nature is your coach, opponent, and referee. Your spiritual guide and your science teacher.
In addition to, or even in place of, competitive sports that can lead to over-scheduling, parent-child disconnects, and injuries, kids need time to play, have fun, and learn to problem-solve with their peers and family in the great outdoors.