Intentional Mothering

The Importance of Wild and Free Outdoor Play for Boys.

June 19, 2016
Outdoor play. The term is bustled about in education circles, but how many people are listening? How many young children, especially boys, are being let down by being cooped up in classrooms all day long? What happened to hours and hours of wild, free, and outdoor play?
 As a mother living in a suburban city, I see how much lack there is for children to just roam nature and climb trees and explore bushy areas. Plus, with a very active, rumbunctious and high-energy three-year-old boy, I see the vital importance of outdoor play for him. Of course, spending time outdoors is of vital importance for both girls and boys. But recently, in the study of my own little boy, I see a direct correlation between outdoor play and the whole-being of a boy.

Here are some of my current thoughts.


Boyhood Today

I really believe that we are in an era where boys – and much of what makes them boys – is squelched out of them. Their desire for rough and tumble; their need for deep male friendships; the way they learn as opposed to the way they are taught; their need to be heroes and warriors and rescuers; their desires to be leaders; their innate instinct to protect {gasp! yes, protect women}.

Boyhood today is not the boyhood of yesterday. Today, we have domesticated our little boys. And one massive area of boyhood that has been domesticated is the greatly needed realm of wild and free, unstructured outdoor play.

And this lack and decline isn’t just because we live in cities. There are many factors that have contributed:

  • Our children are in educational institutes from a very young age, corralled into areas with tens of other children, confined to playing with man-made play equipment.
  • When the school day is over, boys are being put into constructive and defined extracurricular activities.
  • We’re also terrified of them braking arms or hurting others and lawsuits from occurring.
  • There are school games – like bull-rush in New Zealand – that are deemed too dangerous so are banned.
  • From a young age, we rely more and more on technology to entertain children {especially boys}.
  • We ply them with ready-made toys {and lots of them}.

In the last fifty years, but more from the late eighties, a boy’s childhood has become more and more confined, controlled, timed and planned out. Our culture’s view of boyhood has become more feminine. We have allowed fear to rule our parenting. So altogether, our boys are domesticated.

{v} domesticate: to tame

We have tamed our boys. But so much research is showing the need for children to be free, wild and outdoors. Having plenty of time to play, build, explore, imagine, role-play and just run around crazy outdoors has social, health, educational, and behavioural benefits.


Why Outdoors Is Needed

This study from England delves into the need children have to be outside, and a study by the American Medical Association quoted in a Guardian article showed that:
“Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the outdoors.”
If parents are worried that such unstructured play isn’t learning {because our culture is so obsessed with education and being succesful before children even reach puberty}, it is both obvious and proven scientifically that play is learning for the child.

“It is difficult to differentiate play from work in the child, as according to nature play simply is a child’s work – the work or exercise of body and mind required to prepare for coming life.” {source}

And that makes sense, doesn’t it? From birth, babies are continually learning. We don’t put them into classes to learn how to crawl, or walk, or feed themselves. They learn organically by playing, by experimenting, by trial and error. And as older children, that hasn’t changed.

As a boy climbs a tree, or runs as fast as he can down a slope, or finds as many crab shells as he can to fill a bucket – this is all learning. And many boys learn through activity, building and breaking with their hands, digging trenches, dropping sticks from a tree hut, seeking out rabbit holes. Boys in that kind of environment learn quite differently to a boy in more domestic environments.

 “…it is obvious that outdoor play experiences contribute to children’s physical development, in particular to motor development. Less obvious is the learning that happens as children test their strength, externally and internally: how high can I climb? Why does my heart pound when I run? Am I brave enough to jump from this platform?” {source}

In the homeschooling sphere, the education philosophy of Charlotte Mason encourage nature study and outdoor pursuits, especially in the early years. Charlotte Mason said that children should be outside for many hours each day, in unstructured play, but with a parent observing for necessary help and habit training.


My Own Little Boy

As a mother, I have found all of the above to be true. I think though, more significantly, I have found changes in my son’s behaviour depending on how much time he has to be free outside.
Since bringing him home from kindergarten, Josiah has just blossomed. The attitude and behaviourial issues we were having with him have decreased greatly, and he is more gentle, more loving, more adventurous, more imaginative, and more helpful and kinder to his sister {and everyone!}. Aside from being home with his family more, I do believe this improvement has been because I have taken him out at least three times a week for walks in the buggy to spaces where he can just play.

In both pictures above, he is wearing his favourite costume: a hooded towel {his Batman cape}, his rocket socks and rocket boots. He loves zooming around the house as a superhero and he loves running here, there, and everywhere on our walks. He expends so much energy. He uses so much imagination. His mood elevates. His cheeks are flushed and his eyes are full of joy.

He is wild and free and living.
Though the kindergarten we had him at was great with an amazing outdoor space, there is just something very different about acres of land, park space, pathways in forest walks, creek beds and bushy hideaways. Though our city was devastated by earthquakes a number of years ago, where we live is now blossoming into green space because all the houses are gone. This is where I take the kids to roam free and it has just been the best of blessings.
If your son is struggling, is moody, emotionally up and down, more troublesome with you and siblings – try sending him outdoors. Take him several times a week to a place that is big and wide and green for him to run around in. If he’s absorbed in dropping stones down a drain, just let him. Don’t hurry him a long. Forget about the time, things that need to be done – just let him have space and live.

Your little boy needs to be a boy and it is your job as his mother to understand this and to provide opportunities for him to have that avenue of free exploration in God’s green earth.


  1. I completely agree with you! We have 4 boys and a girl. Some days I get lazy with the screen time, but when they spend much time playing video games it makes them crabby. They really need a lot of outdoor movement.

  2. Yes! Though this is about boys, girls need outside play very much! My daughter loves trailing after her brother, though she needs it in a different way to him. Thanks for coming by! {I follow you on Instagram!}

  3. Love this Sarah! One of the reasons we homeschool is that we can't imagine our boys being tied to a desk all day and then coming home and doing homework! Now in our schools in the US they have taken out recess. Kids have no time to just play, create and imagine. It makes me so sad. Boys definitely need to be wild and free with a little bit if structure of course;) Charlotte Mason has so encouraged me in this thinking. So glad you have a place to let your little ones run free. It's not only good for them but us mamas!!

  4. No recess?? That is crazy. That's like the 300 kids in one un-walled building we have down the road. What are governments thinking??

    Sigh. Anyhoo, you're one of my homeschooling inspirations! So, thank you! x

  5. Amen to all of this!!! Charlotte Mason's philosophy on nature study and the value of the outdoors has inspired me. Outdoor time does wonders for both of my boys!

  6. This is delightful <3. Thank you for the excellent reminder! I long to live in a location where I can just send my little guy outside on his own. Someday! Maybe soon? I do wonder if his moodiness would improve significantly. In the meantime, I'm trying to get him out as much as I can :)! Because boy oh boy do they have a lot of energy to expend ;).

  7. Living in cities, especially with no fenced yard, makes it really hard. Even though we have a good sized-property, it's still fenced in and limits that exploration. This is why I walk them to green spaces, or drive them to the many places around {our city has both sea and hills to explore}. Are there any forests or bush or streams you could walk them to?

  8. I have a toddler boy and I can definitely relate. I also see a strong difference in his behavior when he is able to have outdoor time and not. We live in Phx which is a huge city and during the very hot summers its hard to go outside unless your gonna be in the pool. We are hoping to purchase a summer property in Alaska soon just to be able to be closer to nature and have more “outdoor” time. thanks for you post. I found it on the Grace & Truth Link Up

  9. Summer can be tricky! Thankfully in NZ our climate is very temperate so even on a hot day, kids can still play outside in the shade. Having a summer property sounds amazing – and very Downton Abbey-ish 🙂 Boys just love all the exploring and being boys, so I bet your boy will just thrive.

  10. Yes, yes, yes! Let them be boys! Rough, rowdy, energetic (I didn’t know the meaning of energy until my first son started walking-running-jumping), it’s all part of the equation that is boy. We live in an apartment complex in a big city of South Africa, so it’s hard (and a little unsafe, to be honest) to get out into the wild side of things and let him really explore and be free. For now he does lots of bike riding and running around the complex 🙂 Thanks for sharing this!
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    1. That must be hard but he’s blessed to have a mother that understands him. I’m worried that if our son ever went to school, he would be labelled ADHD because he just.never.stops.moving! But, that’s how he learns and the movement is his brain processing all that he is seeing and hearing.

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