Last summer, we went on a nature walk at a nearby garden. The flowers were blooming, the robins were skipping around, and the beautiful sound of flowing water was heard around every corner. Suddenly we had been there for an hour and a half, and it was time to get home so Baby E could take a rest and we could eat lunch. These are the moments that send a whisper through my heart that says, “This is a beautiful childhood.” Spending time outside, so lost in nature that time surprisingly slips away is what Charlotte Mason had in mind for little ones when she recommended 4-6 hours of outdoor play while the weather is nice.
*Updated July 2018
Outdoor Play Is the Best Possible Thing
And long hours they should be; not two, but four, five, six hours they should have on every tolerable fine day, from April to October. ‘Impossible!’ says an overwrought mother who sees her way to no more for her children than a daily hour or so on the pavements of the neighboring London squares. Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children, and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them. A journey of twenty minutes by rail or omnibus, and a luncheon basket, will make a day in the country possible to most town-dwellers; and if one day, why not many, even every suitable day?” Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pages 43-44
In the winter, she recommended two or three hours outside each day: an hour outdoors in the morning, coming in to warm up and eat lunch, and then heading back out in the afternoon. Modern research supports this. Lack of outdoor time is linked to many childhood problems, like Sensory Processing Disorder, obesity, and even ADHD.
Playing Outside In All Weather?
Charlotte Mason often wrote with the highest ideal in mind. She said that we as mothers can make miracles happen if we know that miracles are expected of us. While I think that it is possible to be outside for 4-6 hours each day, especially in nice weather, I think we also need to give ourselves some grace.
In Ambleside, England, where Charlotte Mason lived, the temperatures throughout the year range from a low of 30 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of 59 degrees Fahrenheit. This is much more temperate than my Colorado home, which ranges from about 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Charlotte Mason did not coin the phrase “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” I can’t imagine that she’d advocate taking very small children out in weather that could potentially be dangerous for them!
I think we can free ourselves from the guilt of not getting our children outside when it’s miserably hot or intolerably cold.
Follow this simple rule:
Never be within doors when you can rightly be out. ” Charlotte Mason, Home Education, page 42
This frees me from the guilt of not getting outside when it’s cold, or the baby needs to sleep, or we have errands to run. I have to find a maintainable balance. If I know that being outside is the absolute best for my children, I’ll try to be out there every chance I get; but I also have duties in order to keep everyone fed and healthy.
What should this outdoor time look like?
What Does Outdoor Play Look Like in the Early Years
The mother is not the entertainer
They’re outside! They don’t need to be told stories, played with, or entertained in other ways. There is so much for them to do and observe!
In the first place, it is not her business to entertain the little people: there should be no story-books, no telling of tales, as little talk as possible, and that to some purpose.” Home Education, page 45
It might take some time for your children to learn how to entertain themselves with nature and their own made-up games. You might want to ease into it, instead of immediately expecting hours of child-led play outside.
Ask the child to go observe a tree, flower, or other interesting feature. Have them come back to report what they have seen. This helps increase their vocabulary, ability to remember, and ability to recount without exaggeration (which is necessary for the habit of truthfulness). Don’t tolerate a lazy description!
…she sends them off on an exploring expedition–Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge, or copse. This is an exercise that delights children…” Home Education, page 45
Mental Picture painting
Ask your children to describe to you a landscape that they have seen. This is a tiring task, but it can be enjoyable when presented as a game. I think that this could be extended by actually painting a picture of a flower or another thing seen in nature. This would be fun and meaningful for a young child.
The children will delight in this game on ‘picture-painting’ all the more if the mother introduce it by describing some great picture-gallery she has seen– pictures of mountains, of moors, of stormy seas, of ploughed field, of little children at play, of an old woman knitting,– and goes on to say, that though she does not paint her pictures on canvas and have them put in frames, she carries about with her just such a picture-gallery; for whenever she see anything lovely or interest, she looks at it until she has the picture in her ‘minds eye’; and then she carries it away with her, her own for ever, a picture ‘on view’ just when she wants it.” Home Education, pages 49-50
Object lessons encourage a child to use their five senses while viewing things in nature, or objects around the house. I wrote more about these lessons here.
An Hour or Two of Vigorous Play
We love playing at the park, riding bikes, or playing tag outside. Charlotte Mason recommended 1-2 hours of vigorous exercise each day for children.
Do Not Send Them, Take Them
In the first place, do not send them; if it is anyway possible, take them; for, although the children should be left much to themselves, there is a great deal to be done and a great deal to be prevented during these long hours in the open air.”
I love that Charlotte Mason said this, because sometimes I think people want to create the 1980’s childhood where children played outside by themselves for hours without a grownup around. This ideal doesn’t fit in well with life today. However, there is a difference between supervising and hovering!
These hours that we spend outside are sure to make up some of my children’s most treasured memories of childhood. What a gift that we’re giving them!