I absolutely love books and the gift of learning something new. While the time to read sometimes feels like a luxury, I always relish the opportunity to settle in for an interesting read. Recently, I was blessed with the time to do just that during the long flights to and from my Kalahari Tracking and Bird Language Expedition in Botswana. Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children offers a vitally important message about the mental and physical health of our children.
In these days of over-scheduled children who often expect to be entertained by their parents, caregivers, and camp counselors, this book is a breath of fresh air and I think most moms will relate to the questions and issues the book poses such as:
Are you afraid that your children will be bored so you make sure their days are scheduled and full of guided activities?
Is your child unable to sit still in class?
Are you feeling stressed-out driving your children to their (too) many activities?
Balanced and Barefoot posits that downtime for our kids, especially solo downtime, not only helps with the development of imagination but mitigates their stress levels.
I remember spending hours outside as a kid, exploring on my bike and running it through mud puddles at “Puddle Palace” – a local parking lot with big, often muddy, holes in the concrete that was a favorite stomping ground for all of the neighborhood kids. That very same parking lot held a large mulberry tree, which we would snack on when the fruit was ripe. I had a lot of unstructured free time as a child – most of which I spent running around with the neighbor kids. We’d spend our time making up games together outside or directing plays that we would then perform for our parents. I remember long, industrious hours spent gathering items for my many collections of nests, insects, rocks, and such. Idle time is key to imaginative play. My parents gave me a lot of space and solo time coupled with family dinners, family canoe and hiking trips and camping vacations. Nothing fancy was needed. I didn’t have an iPad.
Balanced and Barefoot gives solid insight into why active, unstructured free play outdoors is so crucial to a child’s physical and mental health. Kids need time to socialize with other kids without parental supervision. This is how they learn valuable skills such as socializing, problem-solving, and how to ultimately be flexible and capable adults. The freedom to simply spend time allows children to initiate their own made-up play, develop strength (and I say this literally as our kids are physically weaker today than kids were when I was young), and helps kids discover their boundaries (‘If I touch this plant I’ll get pricked”). Babies need to be allowed to put pinecones and other textured things (even dirt!) into their mouths instead of sterile plastic toys. Obviously, you want to be sure your baby or older child is safe, but interactions with normal, natural microbes actually strengthens their immune systems, as well as their senses.
We’re so fixated on keeping our kids managed and busy and clean that they’re missing out on some of the most joyous and character-building activities we forgot we enjoyed so much during our own childhoods.
So, I say, let your kids spin on the swing until they’re dizzy, and let your kids smear dirt and make mud pies, and let your kids be bored until they use their glorious little brains to create something fun to do with that long afternoon. Let them run barefoot.
I recommend that all parents read Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children to find out more!