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Outdoors Kids Around the World: How other cultures promote children's independence and self-control
February 15, 2014

In a large fenced park in Finland, Christine Gross-Loh was surprised that mothers were not concerned when their toddlers wandered far away; none chased their kids as American parents would. In Germany, she was astounded to see a 5-year-old boy using a pocketknife to whittle a piece of wood. And when she enrolled her own son in kindergarten in Japan, she was puzzled to learn that the kids spent nearly five hours a day moving indoors and out doing whatever they wanted—including play fighting with swords and guns made of rolled-up newspaper.

Through her study of parenting around the globe, Gross-Loh was frequently reminded “how hands-off parents and other adults are” in countries other than the United States. She recognized that her own responses as a mother are largely culturally determined—and not necessarily good for her kids.

The Boston-area mother of four shares her insights in the recent book, Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us. Much of what she saw as she raised her young children in Japan for five years, and visited schools and families in other countries, suggests that children thrive when they have more time for unstructured play outdoors—and less adult guidance than many Americans might expect.

“Parents in our culture think our job is to guide children and make sure they’re engaged in the right activities,” Gross-Loh says. “It’s done with good intentions, but it robs them of the experience of being bored or feeling failure, which can be great ways to learn.” When children play on their own, they are practicing skills of risk-taking, independence, and self-control that will help them with future studies and social and emotional adjustment.

Playing outdoors has additional benefits. Research shows that young children who are allowed lots of time for unstructured outdoor play, rather than starting formal academics early, perform better on academics later, Gross-Loh says. And once children are ready for formal education, they are more focused and productive if they have regular outdoor recess breaks. In fact, the students in Naperville, Illinois, scored first in the world in science and sixth in math after their district implemented a physical education curriculum that focused on fitness rather than sports, and had students study their most challenging subjects after exercising.

Now that she knows the value of outdoor play, Gross-Loh lets her own kids roam more freely than she once did. “Before, I thought I would be a bad parent if I didn’t look out for their safety” by forbidding activities like climbing the beech tree in their front yard, she says. “But I was actually crippling their ability to explore.”

Ready to try to boost your kids’ time outdoors? Here are six recommendations from Gross-Loh to help you.

  1. Reduce indoor play. Limit screen time and cut down on other gadgets and games that keep kids indoors. With fewer attractions enticing them to stay inside, kids may better hear the call of outdoor play.
  2. Keep a flexible schedule. Don’t sign your child up for so many structured activities that he or she loses the chance to figure out what to do with an open afternoon.
  3. Model the behavior you want to see. Get outdoors yourself, either on your own or with your children, and see how they follow your lead.
  4. Find like-minded parents. Get to know neighbors whose kids ride bikes past your house; meet families who hike, camp, or ski and invite them to plan outings together.
  5. Get the right clothes. Speaking to a Danish graduate student who was interning at a forest kindergarten, a preschool in which children ages 3 to 6 spent several hours outdoors each day, Gross-Loh heard a phrase popular with Nordic parents: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Outfit your child with the right clothes and gear, whether it’s snow pants and mittens or a sunhat and sunscreen, and you will make outdoor time more enjoyable for everyone.
  6. Step back. Encourage your children to explore, and then try stepping back so that you are not guiding and supervising their outdoor play. Let them direct their time and actions more and more as your confidence and comfort increase.

Learn More
Read more about unstructured play, risk, and kids:

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