Father helps daughter walk across a log in nature
Simple Parenting

Outdoor play is the best medicine for “the grumps”

Outdoor play solved so many problems for us. I can’t wait to tell you how!

Do you have a time of the day when your whole family chronically gets grumpy?

We did. It was always right when I was making dinner. Which, of course, was also right when Nate was coming home from work. Who wants to come home to two crying kids and a grumpy wife who’s ignoring all the messes to just get food on the table ASAP? I know I wouldn’t.

So I set out to find a solution. Make more freezer meals? We don’t really love those. Prep dinner during nap time? Our kitchen is too close to our napping kids and could wake them up. Also, I can’t be trusted to actually do things consistently during nap time. It seemed that changing our actual meal plan and dinner making routine wasn’t going to be the solution.

Benefits of getting outdoor play

Around the same time, I listened to a podcast of Happier with Gretchen Rubin about getting outside and getting some sunlight. (Why she decided to air an episode about getting sunlight in October is beyond me, but you can listen to that episode here: https://gretchenrubin.com/podcast-episode/244-go-outside-into-the-sunlight/.) She mentions that getting sunlight, even on a cloudy day, can help you feel more energetic and improve your mood. Both of which I desperately need as a mother!!

It made me itch to get outside more. But that’s not as simple as it might sound when you have two little kids in Minnesota in the middle of winter. Snow as deep as they are tall, freezing temperatures, and extreme winds make outdoor play a bit tricky.

I was also learning about Charlotte Mason’s home education philosophies. In the early years of a child’s life she encourages parents to give their children as much unstructured outdoor play as possible. Four to six hours of it, actually! (You can learn more about her views on outdoor play here: https://simplycharlottemason.com/blog/outdoor-life-for-preschoolers-early-years-homeschooling/.)

Four to six hours of outside play a day in the winter in Minnesota? Definitely not going to happen. But I planned to start working up to that when the weather got warm. Then I realized, what if I started small? What if I started with like 15 minutes? That seemed doable.

What worked best for us

We tried taking a short walk in the morning, but it was too cold and not all the sidewalks were cleared well enough for me to navigate them with the wagon. Besides, our morning schedule was different day to day.

We tried right after nap time, but my groggy girls were reluctant to pile on all their snow gear and head outside.

Then I had an idea. I texted Nate: “Hey, shoot me a text when you’re leaving work. I want to try having the girls outside when you get home.” I started dinner a little earlier than usual and fed the girls a small snack.

As soon as Nate texted that he was headed home, I started bundling the girls in their snow clothes. By the time he pulled in the driveway, we were out there with snow gear and shovels. Megan (3) was thrilled to be outside. She kept climbing on top of the large snow pile at the end of our driveway and sliding back down onto the sidewalk. Hailey (1) cried when we went outside. I guess you really can’t please everyone.

When Nate got home, we had a chance to chat about the day while the girls got some energy out. I took Hailey inside when she was done, and put the finishing touches on dinner. Nate brought Megan in when it was ready.

Two girls on a sled in the snow

It worked!

The dinner-time grumps have all but disappeared at our house. The girls are always excited to go outside and watch for daddy to come home. They come in without too much grumbling and we move straight into eating dinner. And I’m happy to report that Hailey now cries when we go inside instead of when we go outside. 

We love our sunshine and fresh air. By getting outdoors in the winter, we greatly cut back on our feelings of cabin fever. It’s safe to say that fresh air and sunshine are the best medicine for our grumps!

Outdoor play for any season

So you made it out the door, but now what? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1. Think sensory bin!

You know those intense sensory bins that some moms put together with multicolored rice and alphabet magnets? That’s not really my cup of tea. So one of my favorite things about outdoor play is that it’s basically a giant sensory bin! Take little shovels, rakes, and buckets out with you for some good sensory play. In winter, those are all great fun in the snow. In warmer months you can use them in the sandbox, dirt, or leaves. Encourage them to gather sticks, rocks, leaves, etc. Ask them which one is the biggest or smallest, which ones are rough and smooth, and which ones are their favorite.

(A really fun winter specific idea is to grab a hammer and find some ice to smash!)

Young girl plays outdoors in sandbox

2. Let your child explore

This may mean letting your child get out of your comfort zone sometimes. Let them climb on rocks and trees and snow piles! Let them get really close to bugs or splash in the puddles or play with the dirt. Don’t feel the need to lead their play all the time. Give them time and space to explore, and follow their lead for a while. I think you’ll be surprised at how long they’re able to just explore the great outdoors.

Father helps daughter walk across a log in nature

3. Bring out the ride on toys

We use ride on toys in just about every season. Even in winter, my girls liked scooting around the driveway on a tricycle.

4. Teach them your favorite childhood games

Maybe it’s hopscotch, jump rope, or four square, or maybe you were more into tag or kickball. Whatever you loved, your kids probably will too. Teach them your favorite games and everyone will have a good time!

5. Take your indoor play outdoors

What does your child love to play with? Take it outside. We love coloring, playing with bubbles, reading picture books, and eating snacks outside. But this could be done with anything your child loves! Cars, blocks, duplos, and even that toy kitchen would all be great fun outside. Getting creative with outdoor play is a great way to coax reluctant children outside!

What works for you?

I hope you’ve found some ideas and inspiration that will help you get outside! It’s such a fun part of childhood, and an important part of adult mental health.

I’d love to hear what works for you! What motivates you to get outside? What do you love doing once you’re out there?

1 thought on “Outdoor play is the best medicine for “the grumps””

  1. I love love love hoyr sentence: “Sometimes this means letting your child get outside your comfort zone sometimes.” At first I thought I had misread it, but then I thought “No, that’s absolutely right. It is YOUR comfort zone, MY comfort zone that I have to get out of.”

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