the elixir of outdoor play

My childhood was spent in a small town in northern Minnesota where our non-school hours were largely spent playing out of doors.

GR winter

My bare feet were gravel-road-tough in summer; my nose was twenty-below-tough in winter. Just across the road, the grassy pasture of an old farm invited lazy exploration along with several ponds full of frogs, turtles and garter snakes free for the catching. Pockets of woods dotted the neighborhood and we puttered around there endlessly, doing a lot of nothing-much…

…except flourishing.


All of us kids roamed far and wide completely unsupervised, venturing miles from home with no need to ask permission.

One afternoon I might head off to scoop up mucky clay by the river, shape it into lumpy pots, then bake them on sunny boulders.
Another day would find us playing neighborhood games of Kick the Can or Freeze Tag until we were called in to bed, our legs a sorry mess of bug bites, old scabs, and fresh scrapes.
We were not enrolled in any good-for-us classes, but our minds were feasting on fresh air, expanding with the endless possibilities of imagination.

Version 2

Our son learned hatchet skills early on!

When my own children were young, we were fortunate to have a large lot even in this suburb, with enough woods nearby for a bit of exploration and gallons of open space for setting up encampments. I raised them the only way I knew, ordering them outdoors in all sorts of weather and assuming they would invent their own clever ways of occupying themselves.

Which they did. Igloos were built. Boats were sailed in puddles. Elaborate leaf houses were constructed. Once, a crow was railed against when it nabbed a baby rabbit.

Version 3

Ready for an afternoon on the river.

As a family, we camped in tents on the North Shore every summer, hiked the Superior Hiking Trail, paddled and sailed, stargazed and skipped stones. We did this because it was the happiest thing we could think of, but the benefits soared far beyond what we ever suspected.


A snowy picnic in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

At this point in my life, I’m better able to appreciate the tremendous power of copious, informal, outdoor play to produce happy, active, curious, observant, content, imaginative kids. Nature is unparalleled in its restorative capability. The wild world is an ever-fascinating realm, a bountiful giver. Freewheeling exploration heartens bodies, minds, and souls for human beings of all ages.


Monkeying around in the baobab, West Africa.

The pressure on young parents currently to enroll children in numerous enriching activities, classes, camps, leagues… to the detriment of hearty, exploratory, outdoor play is to me a misfortune with sorrowful repercussions.

Version 2

Hiking in the Canadian Rockies.

To that end, as the summer, non-school months roll around once more, I’d like to recommend several resources to get your juices flowing in establishing new patterns, outdoor play grooves, for your families.

•If you have never thought much about the benefits of outdoor play for children (and yourself),
•or you think it’s perhaps a good idea but your child’s schedule will simply not allow for it,
•or you’ve given it some thought but haven’t got much farther than that,
•or you love this idea but feel like some important people in your life would not be supportive,
•or you are 100% on board and would love to hear a boatload of reasons why this is such a great lifestyle decision,

then a great read for you is:

there's no such thing as bad weather cover image

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids, by Linda Akeson McGurk
published in 2017 by Touchstone
259 pages

With a robust mixture of anecdotes and descriptions of common practices in Scandinavian countries where loads of fresh air and freewheeling outdoor play are the norm from infancy on up, McGurk woos us towards this delightful, refreshing way of life. There are so many compelling reasons to choose unstructured, playful, non-electronic lifestyles for our children and ourselves. As I browsed through this book, I found myself thinking, “That’s exactly what I would like to say to parents!” time and time again.

But I don’t need to! Because it’s all right here in this dandy book, with recommendations for further reading if you like.

from hikeitbaby

Once you’re energized to get your kids outdoors, here are some great books bursting with creative, fun ideas no matter where you find yourself!

Significantly, most of these author-moms herald from Europe. Let’s go, American moms! Let’s turn our kids (and ourselves!) into healthy, happy, playful, imaginative folk who create their own fun, who love to ramble about outside in all kinds of weather for the good of mind, soul, and body.

the stick book cover image

The Stick Book: Loads of Things you can Make or Do with a Stick, by Jo Schofield and Fiona Danks
published in 2012 by Frances Lincoln

Part of an eternal collection of Best Playthings on Planet Earth, right alongside Water, Mud, Rocks, Sand, Snow…are Sticks.

This book is so full of creative, imaginative, satisfying projects with sticks that even full-on rambunctious, already-outdoorsy kids will find something new to consider.

the stick book interior by Schofield and Danks

From wild weaving to catapults, Pooh Sticks to miniature stick rafts, the full-color photographs and minimal descriptions will inspire you without bogging you down in unnecessary detail. Improvisation is the key here anyway! 70 projects for kids to do on their own or collaborate on with you.

Also in this excellent series:
The Wild City Book: Loads of Things to do Outdoors in Towns and Cities;
The Wild Weather Book: Loads of Things to do Outdoors in Rain, Wind
, and Snow;
The Beach Book: Loads of Things to do at Lakes, Rivers and the Seaside

I’ll highlight just one of the above, The Wild City Book.

the wild city book cover image

For some of you, I’m afraid, the Instagrammers of our fair world who extol the virtues of raising kids in the great out-of-doors may have succeeded in making such a life feel impossibly, piercingly, out of reach.

In their gorgeously composed, filtered photo squares we see healthy, happy children, clothed in exquisite woolens and stain-free cargo pants, happily tromping through alpine meadows, skippeting along untrammeled beaches, basking in the glow of a campfire at a boreal campsite. Meanwhile you live on a fairly mundane cul-de-sac or in a duplex on a busy city street.

The Wild City Book joyfully presents imaginative, delightful outdoor adventures that fit into the nooks and crannies of life in cities, and I would hasten to add, suburbs. For, if cities challenge us, I would say suburbs do equally with their swaths of precision-manicured, chemically-greened lawns, codes regulating every inch of the properties, and playgrounds cram-jam with equipment but nary a muddy puddle or scruff of brambles in sight for sheer messy exploration.

the wild city book interior by Schofield and Danks

This book will make a lovely springboard into the wonders and curiosities, the make-believe and artistry, the celebrations and investigations lurking right under our noses in unexpected and seemingly-bland places. From land art to water graffiti, container gardening to a pre-dawn expedition to hear the dawn chorus even above the urban noise surrounding us, there are dozens of inspirational ideas here to get your outdoor juices flowing.

rainy day kids adventure book cover image

Rainy Day Kids Adventure Book, by Steph Scott and Katie Akers
published in 2017 by Batsford

Organized by the kinds of weather we might term “inclement” this book coaxes us to get out there and discover the great ideas that actually require rainy, windy, or snowy days.

Try your hand at an acorn-cup water wheel. Build an elf clothes washing line. Make your own wind chimes. Or a sledge for a fairy.

rainy day kids adventure book by Scott and Akers

Many of the ideas in this book are more complicated constructions, perfect for slightly older kids to putter with or for you to fiddle with while your kids do something simpler. What a joy to have mom or dad inspire children with their own, cobbled-together, slightly frumpy, natural creations! There are also simpler ideas and games for all.

Full color photos, step by step instructions, plus some science-y facts about everything from clouds to hailstones.

if you want to see a caribou illustration jim meyers

from If You Want to See a Caribou

One of my annual Orange Marmalade Juicies always goes to the best books heralding outdoor play. Recently I took the time to gather scads of great titles from the Orange Marmalade archives — picture books and chapter-length books — that celebrate outdoor play and adventures of all sorts; they are now compiled in a list with links to their reviews. You can find that here.

Romance your kids with an outdoorsy-story, then plunge into the unquantifiable, marvelously-messy, happy playground of Nature!

fort building time interior by Lloyd and Halpin

from Fort-Building Time