Baby it's cold outside
Brrrr Winter is definitely here. It's pretty cold outside! I've written before about the benefits of playing outside, but it always seems trickier to do so in the colder months. So what's all the fuss about getting outside in the Winter? Surely we should just curl up inside and stay warm by the heater! Do we really need the outdoors to grow and function well?
Yes we do! Our bodies are designed to adapt to seasonal temperature fluctuations, but we have to get outside to experience the temperature! We only get the reward chemical dopamine from our brains when we have experienced some "hardship" before the comfort. If our lives are too comfortable, we stay inside by the heater too much, and remain too inactive, we increase our risk for developing SAD (seasonal affective disorder), anxiety and depression. Children can end up feeling "caged in" and can create havoc indoors! Children and adults alike can gain a lasting feeling of satisfaction and joy from a morning (or even better, a day or a week) of being outdoors! Pack some food, get your Winter gear on and step outside...
I get that having children is tiring. Probably the most tiring thing you'll ever do. The endless tasks that require attention at home, the endless needs from little people in our care, the endless food preparation and feeding. I also understand that sometimes the exhaustion is overwhelming and going outside and getting wet and muddy seems like the worst idea. Sometimes though, these are just the times that we can benefit the most from being outdoors!
When we keep our children happy, we parents and carers also benefit! A child who is engaged in play can often require little from us. There is something about the outdoors that encourages more imaginative play. Perhaps it is the wide, open space that allows unrestricted imagination. Perhaps it is that there are no guidelines or rules about how we "should" play. This can be tricky at first for older children who are new to outdoor play. They can find it all "boring", or just not know what to do without some suggestion. This is quite normal in a new environment and will change over time, and with more experience. They will get to the point where they are keen to run off and play, leaving you to enjoy some Winter sunshine, read a book, feed a baby sibling or chat to a friend.
As with any change in our behaviour, the early stages of creating a new habit can be hard work. This is because our brains need more energy to create a new brain pathway than to continue a pre-existing one. As psychologists and neuroscientists know, "neurons that fire together wire together". Our brain is always learning and trying to keep ourselves and our children safe. When we challenge our thoughts it requires a lot of mental energy to work out whether we are safe, and then how we need to manage the risks in our surroundings. Not all outdoor spaces are the same! It depends on whether we need to run and roam wildly, or whether a nice quiet play in the mud kitchen is what's necessary. The good news is that more time spent outside builds more skills to manage the outdoors and more comfort for carers and children. It can be a steep learning curve in the early days, one that can be confronting and challenging, but that is worth the efforts in the long term.
What about the risks? It's easy to say that parents/carers should get their kids outside and all will be well, but what about all the risks? There is always one child who climbs higher in a tree than the adults feel comfortable with. What about the child who runs away and doesn't seem to care that no adult is close to them, or the child who is always falling off the logs that they climb on, never seeming to be learning from their mistakes? I have seen all of these children! None of them have ever actually hurt themselves badly. It seems miraculous at times, but perhaps it is worth trusting the children's innate ability to push their limits and learn from their environment. Perhaps the actual issue is that we adults are bombarded with messages of fear? Articles about the dangers of the world are everywhere. To outweigh this fear, we need experiences of our own that negate these fears.
If you as the parent/carer of a child or children are truly fearful of what can go wrong, there are a few simple steps to follow to become more familiar and feel more comfortable.
- Start slow. An adult brain that has learnt to fear the outdoors and worry about the movements of their children, can not easily become relaxed and brave...so take your time and do things one step at a time. Take a deep breath and trust your child for just a few moments and build on this as you feel more comfortable.
- Don't start out near water, roads, cliffs or dense bushland! Pick an area that is outdoors, but fairly mild, and let your child make decisions about what they get up to. Keep the biggest dangers for when the kids are older and you are all more experienced with outdoor play.
- Dress the kids in a waterproof suit and gumboots, take a deep breath and let them explore the dirt/mud/trees at their own pace. Have a spare set of clothes and a towel on hand, and be ready for a bath when you all get home!
- Remember that spinning, rolling, getting dirty, feeling different textures, going barefoot, running wildly and climbing are all normal ways that children grow their brains and learn about their bodies and the world around them.
- Go with a friend or family member! Everything seems easier when we're with other people. Talk to your friends about how they are feeling about their children, or just watch.
- Allow your child to take the lead and see what their minds come up with!
The good news is that over time, anything new will become more familiar, and therefore easier to manage. With time and persistence, you can turn a sense of discomfort with the outdoors, into feelings of joy and excitement about stepping outside!
Where are you headed first?