Friday, April 29, 2016

Why Time Outside Is Essential For Kids

She sits at the kitchen table and does math.  In fact, she takes up to two hours to finish one math lesson if she's having a bad day and feeling easily distracted.  Even then, we're lucky if she finishes it at all.  It's not that the math in the book is hard for her, or that she's bored with it.  It's not that she doesn't like it.  Eyes wander up to the window leading into the back yard, and I can tell that she longs to be out there, not necessarily in our back yard, but anywhere out in nature.  Like mother like daughter.

I've been working a lot lately.  I went back to work part time 6 months ago, and three months ago I went full time on nights.  The more I work, the more I wish I could be 'out there somewhere' spending time with my daughter.  Where we had all the time in the world to spend together before, the time we have is few and far in between now.  The time I do have with her is spent doing chores, running her to baseball practice, and doing schoolwork.  Quitting my job isn't really an option, just like stopping math and not finishing the math book this year isn't an option.  It's easy for me to feel stuck in this cycle of work, sleep, school, chores, meals, work.  I imagine my daughter must feel the same way sometimes.  She does get to go out and play with her friends, but it's easy to feel like something's still missing in all of the day to day routine.

As our time together has become shorter because of my work schedule, and the days have grown warmer, I've found myself not wanting to stay in and do school work and chores.  Maybe that's why I gave my 2nd grader a two-week break from math and a break from a few other subjects, and we've moved our studies outdoors.  For the past 2 weeks we've been pretty unstructured, and in my head I feel like we've gone the unschooling route.  I could never unschool fully, though to some extent we have always tried to tailor history and science to her interests. 

So what has our two week 'unschooling' break looked like?  We go out to the park in the afternoons and go hiking.  I tell her to go up into the trees a little further and 'find something in nature that's interesting.'  She thinks it's a safari, and sets off on her adventure inspecting every insect, a blade of grass here, a pinecone there, a stick, treebark... and she does find something interesting.  She finds something every afternoon when we go out.  A piece of bark that insects have eaten trails inside of.  A pinecone she has checked every inch of to be sure there's no spiders inhabiting before she puts it in her pocket to take home.  Pretty wildflowers, and sticks covered in moss.  I notice that her eyes aren't wandering looking for a kitchen table to sit down at.  Instead they're alight with curiosity, and I think I can see the cogs turning in her mind, trying to work out what kind of bugs ate that bark, why they would want to eat the bark, and where they've gone now.

When we get home, I pull out a composition book and some colored pencils and she happily sits down at the table to write in her new 'nature' journal.  She draws a fair likeness of the bark (better than I could have drawn), and starts writing what she's observed about it.  She's writing without complaint, and I can't believe it, because one thing she hates is writing words on paper, and there is always a power struggle over it.  Then she comes and snuggles up to me on the couch and we read about tree bark in a book, and then read two more books about trees.  She's happy to have her answers about why insects eat the inside of the bark, and goes back to her nature journal to write some more about it, and about why tree bark is important to trees.  She seems happy sitting there and writing, and eager to show what she's learned.

I've always known that it's important for kids to have unstructured time outside.  That's why I make it a point to get her outside and playing with the neighborhood kids whenever possible.  It's different than being out in nature and exploring just to satisfy your own curiosity though.  There's something about the way we learn when we're actively engaged.  Something that makes her and I both happy.  Maybe it's the exercise we got when hiking, or it could be that her imagination was running wild while she was out on her 'safari.'

Even though we're back to our book work now after our two week break, I've decided that for my 2nd grader, nature time is absolutely essential.  I get on to her sometimes when she's taking an extra long time doing her math because she's 'distracted', because she uses it as an excuse.  But I know why she's distracted.  She wants to be out there.  She wants to be engaged, and use her imagination, and explore things.  She wants to feel the texture of what she's learning about, observe it with her eyes, smell it with her nose, and listen to it with her ears.  And she wants to figure things out for herself.

The park we hike at isn't close to our house.  It's a 20 minute drive, but as the weather continues to get warmer, and summer comes (we school year round), I've decided that she's going to get some 'nature' time every day.  Walking and hiking seems to help her stay focused when we come back to the house to finish up the rest of her schoolwork for the day, and I love seeing that curious look in her eyes as she goes out to explore something she's never seen or thought about before.  I love spending time with her too, and hearing the excitement in her voice as she beckons me over with, "Mom, you have to see this!  Come look at the shape of this flower!"

We can't give up on structured schoolwork or quit jobs, but we can make the most of the time we have together, and enjoy some of our time with each other 'out there', where we really want to be.  It's a change of pace that we're both enjoying, and it's done wonders for her when she's sitting at the table doing her book work without complaint, and staying focused.  For our family, we can't afford not to carve out time in the day to go outside and take a deep breath.  It gives us time to just be free and relax for an hour, and when we go home to really focus on getting things done.

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