Radical engagement: how to get your kids to play outside

Radical engagement: how to get your kids to play outside

For years, the NFL has sponsored an initiative with the American Heart Association called PLAY 60, which has a pretty simple mission statement: to encourage kids to get 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Although the project has reached millions of children, that number also long seemed a bit meager – just an hour’s run for an entire day?

But believe it or not, the lens is actually quite sturdy. According to research by child mind institutethe average American child plays an average of less than seven minutes outside of a day, compared to seven hours screen time per day. The pandemic has only intensified this trend, as children have adapted to “school days” without recess and have resisted cancellations of clubs and camps. Meanwhile, parents (understandably enough) found it easier to govern their hyper-stressed households when their kids were just sitting in the other room with an iPad.

Limited physical activity among young people, however, has disastrous and far-reaching consequences; it contributes to rising rates of obesity, interferes with creativity and cognitive functions, limits risk taking and can “plateau” socialization skills. Play — and especially play outside, with peers — is a feast for the young body and brain. Kids don’t realize how beneficial it is while it’s happening (part of why it’s so effective), but it also means that when the natural order of things deviates, they don’t know enough to talk, or how to get out of their own way.

That’s where parents can and should step in, says an American outdoorsman named Steven Rinella, whose name you might recognize as the host of meat eater and The savage within. Rinella has released a new book, titled Outdoor children in an indoor worldand recently sat down with Outside to discuss a philosophy he calls “radical engagement”.

Rinella grew up in Twin Lake, Michigan, a rural town not far from Lake Michigan, and has spent her life hunting, hiking, and fishing in remote places all over the world (from Alaska to New Zealand). But his children grew up in a city, and he was terrified that they would grow up “hating” nature – or at least feel indifferent to it, like the youngest of the generation cohort. Z and emerging Generation Alpha (born 2010-2025).

He’s developed a number of strategies to keep them out, moving, and genuinely interested in what they see. Once it feels like a chore to the child, like anything else, the game is up. Rinella advises parents to find nature in their local environment first. That means camping in the backyard, strolling through local parks, and encouraging questions about the natural world that intersects with this neighborhood, even if it’s the city or the suburbs. Kids can start small, learning to appreciate the vegetation and wildlife around them, before moving on to the wild stuff.

It is important not to rush into a national pamphletbackpack style family trip. If the family doesn’t feel ready to leave and things go awry (which they often do, given the wide open spaces), this could provide enough nightmare fuel for your kids to shoot down years of potential travel thereafter. Find ways to spend time outdoors around activities they enjoy. It shouldn’t just be about tying knots and making fire; How about looking for more powerful hills for sledding in winter? Or find a hidden ground to kick a soccer ball? Plus, never underestimate how much kids love jumping into lakes and pools. Avoid the water park with its long queues and dive elsewhere.

Children don’t have to be perfect scouts to enjoy moving around, being outdoors, and understanding that the Earth doesn’t belong to them – it’s a shared home, where we all should act as conscious participants and stewards. The technology is not entirely at odds with this mission either. Rinella says he will post videos on YouTube to help answer his children’s questions about their adventures in the natural world.

Years ago, survivalist Bear Grylls got into some trouble for leaving his 11-year-old son on an island off the coast of Wales, presumably to hone the boy’s coping skills and stoicism In the face of danger. (He had to be rescued by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.) Fortunately, radical commitment doesn’t suggest you go that far. At this stage, it is “radical” to get your children out. Try to prioritize philosophy this summer. They may resist it at first, but they’ll be grateful you stepped in on the line.

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