Some of the most amazing things happen right in our backyard. There are days that we venture out farther, like for a hike at the nearby state park or to the zoo, but most of the time we just head outside. We live in the suburbs and don’t have a large yard, and nor is it well-maintained. I certainly have dreams of acres of land where we can roam through fields, streams, and woods right out our door, but I am grateful for where we are now and the space that we do have. I tell you all this as encouragement if perhaps you don’t feel like you have a suitable space for a child to play–take a step outside without a preconceived idea of what will or should happen.
The thing about being outside with children is you don’t need any particular thing for them to find things to do. Sticks, rocks, grasses, moss, etc. are all things that they find fascinating. We have a rain gully/drainage ditch that runs along the whole back of our pie-shaped lot, and it provides hours of interest. We have found fossils, splashed in the puddles left behind after a good rain, and tipped over big rocks to see what’s hiding underneath. As I write this, the kids are in the gully with sticks that they are pretending are flutes. When given the freedom to explore, children’s imaginations are boundless.
When my daughter was younger I kept the gully off-limits, feeling more comfortable with her playing on the swing set or sandbox. It has been a shift in mindset for me that has allowed me to give the children more freedom, and to trust that they are capable. That is not to say that I don’t offer some guidance now and again, or that there aren’t limits to where they can go. This has been a combination of trusting my instincts as a parent, and over time, observing how my kids have learned to set their own limits.
We feed and watch the birds. We listen for their songs and try to find them in the trees or if we can’t see them, guess at what kind of bird sings that song. We touch everything (well, almost– exceptions include poison ivy and things with teeth or stingers). We take our shoes off and feel with our feet too. We call attention to things that we find interesting.
Some of the time I am very hands on and offer activities outside or ask questions. At other times I sit on the deck and write or knit, or do nothing and just enjoy the fresh air and the sounds of my kids engaging with their surroundings. There is value in simply observing what sparks interest, and in letting the kids just have free time to play. Children are constantly learning and absorbing information (sometimes even when we’d rather they not remember that thing we said). If we can learn to look for opportunities to engage children in our day to day life, the learning that is constantly happening is multiplied.