Monday, September 19, 2011

How to make your kids happy: play and the outdoors

I recently read an article called What really makes our children happy? (I found it because it was linked on Twitter by the wonderful and inspirational @GirlEmpowerment.) It's an article written by Dr Tessa Livingstone, an expert in child psychology, and in it she goes through some recent, in-depth research on the lives of British children.

The article is sombre reading in many ways: kids and families have it tough, the downturn in the economy is taking a toll on parents and children, and buying their children lots of gadgets and presents is becoming something many parents feel is what being a parent is all about.

However, research shows that it's something else that makes children happy. To quote the article:
Our survey uncovered a surprising truth. Children who were alone spent as many concentrated hours playing, usually with video games, but the children who played together usually played outside – and they laughed. Our greatest laughers laughed a whopping 85 times. They weren’t the only ones. A recent survey by the Open University asked hundreds of children across the country what they like to do. The answer was clear. Children are happiest when they play outside with other children. [my emphasis]
This isn't rocket science. Most parents know this to be a fact, though we might not really consciously think about it. Sure, my kids love playing games on the Wii, and on the computer. They like watching movies and TV too. But the time when they truly are fully involved in what they are doing, fully immersed in the real world and their imaginary worlds, and fully happy is often when they are playing outside with friends.

The great outdoors are... great
I've written before on this blog about my belief that the great outdoors is the best place for kids. I know my kids love being outside: beach-combing and kite-flying in Point Roberts, hiking a trail, or maybe just meeting up with friends in the backyard or the playground.

I think one of the best and cheapest activities for kids is just that: a play date with other kids at someone's house or the park. It doesn't have to be fancy, or well-planned (unplanning is your friend!), or involve organized activities. Actually, organized activities should not always be provided (in my opinion). Instead it's better to let the children make up and choose their own games, run around, jump on a trampoline, feed and search for bugs, chase each other, play pretend games, tumble down a slide together, or just sit and talk under a shady tree.

All the parents need is something to sit on. It's cheap, easy, and fun. Three out of three ain't bad.

Letting go, letting them play
There are many parts of life where parents have to direct and guide what children do. For example, when traveling by plane with my kids I often feel like I'm an army officer, keeping the troops in check, making sure no one is left behind. Same thing when we have to get ready for school at a certain time in the morning. But when kids play together in a kid-friendly spot (meaning there is a lot of space, not necessarily a lot of toys but a lot of things to play with such as grass, rocks, and trees), I feel I can just let the leash slip and let them enjoy being who they are and doing what they want to do (unless it involves throwing dirt at each other...).

Children everywhere play together outside when they can do so. And they do it because it is good for them, because they learn from it, and because it they have fun doing it.
On the suspension bridge in Lynn Canyon with the kids.
I usually find that being outdoors brings out the best in my own kids. They are less whiny and clingy, they are more imaginative and independent, they have more fun and laugh more.

This Sunday, once the rain stopped and the sun peeked out, my husband and I headed to one of our favorite weekend hangouts: Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver. The kids trudged up stairs, looked for slugs on the trails, shook tree branches to make the gathered rain drops fall on their heads. They watched a woodpecker drill away at a tree. They complained a bit about the last steep stairs up to the parking lot, but they still loved it.

This week, if the weather cooperates, I'm taking them to the playground after school's out to hang with their friends: getting loud, banging their knees, maybe even throwing dirt or bark mulch at each other (darn kids!).

Photos from Lynn Canyon, taken by my wonderful husband.


  1. Great post and soooo true! My daughters love to spend time in nature just playing together.

  2. Thank you! I know it certainly works for mine: if they're driving me up the wall, the best cure is taking them outside. :)

  3. According to some studies playing games is good for health. If you want to read more or research a bit you can read it more at "Playing Outdoor Games May Reduce Kid's Risk for Myopia, Study Reveals"

  4. Very interesting article! Thank you for posting that. :)


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