Eight years ago when I was a young(ish) new mom with my then almost-one-year-old daughter, I realized that if we were going to make it through the winter months ahead, both of us were going to need to make some friends.
I remember recruiting neighbourhood moms, who had babies around the same age, at the local playground and on the street to see if they wanted to form a playgroup that would rotate from house to house every week. It was lifesaving in that second year of motherhood to have an afternoon we could count on getting together. And it’s been a blast to see the babies from that group growing up before my eyes.
There really wasn’t as much awareness then about how important it is for babies and toddlers to spend lots of time outdoors and so it never occurred to me to make it an outdoor playgroup. I wish I knew then what I know now.
It’s snowing. Where are all the kids?
Norwegian-born Kari Svenneby also had a baby girl right around the same time I did but coming from a culture that “believes that being outside is the right thing to do for your kids especially when they’re young”, she did set out to start an outdoor playgroup for her daughter. But she was shocked to find out that in Toronto this was no easy task.
As soon as it started getting cold out, the neighbourhood children disappeared and, a librarian by profession, Kari started her investigations into whether the lifestyle she was raised with was really as good as she believed.
Studies backed her up and she decided to start blogging about the importance of outdoor play for kids. What started as a grassroots movement to raise awareness has blossomed into an excellent resource for parents that want to raise their children with a strong connection to nature with activity suggestions, blogs, and more.
Outdoor family living is a lifestyle
Though her children have outgrown the need for the playgroup, it set the foundation for the outdoor lifestyle her family lives today. She’s created an “outdoor playroom” in the backyard, complete with a trapeze for her daughters to play on and they are out there doing gymnastics every day while their parents garden.
The family also spends a great deal of time being active outdoors. Adjusting to the seasons, they’ll paddle board and canoe in the summer and cross country ski and skate in the winter. It’s a lifestyle that Kari emphasizes is about being active, family bonding, and developing skills.
You may be wondering if you can get all these things by signing your kids up for programs. The short answer, according to Kari, is no. She believes that programs “play a role in children’s lives, especially when they are older” and her daughters do take ballet, gymnastics, and swimming, but in terms of the amount of activity they actually get from these classes, Kari says, “a lot of times it’s not enough”.
Referring to research from Norway, Kari added, “it seems that no matter how many programs you are [enrolling your children in] when it comes to that real connection with nature and to continue with the lifestyle … parents are the best ones and that’s what really matters.”
Kids develop skills in nature that they can’t get anywhere else
When kids are outside they automatically ― and without thinking about it ― develop skills. On a ravine walk they learn balance by walking or running on uneven ground. They climb trees, or run up steep hills, and anyone who has ever been near a child, a stick, and a creek, knows that throwing is just a given.
Kari also believes that children need to play “in all kinds of weather” because it helps them develop motor skills that they otherwise don’t get to work on. When we chatted recently she pointed out to me “schools and a lot of programs would say don’t go out on ice when it’s slippery and wet”. But practicing to walk on ice helps develop balance and we learn how to not fall down. A skill that most of us living in Canada would agree is a necessity and one that is hard to learn later in life.
According to Kari’s research, and her experience with her own children, she has seen that getting kids outside when they are very young is crucial. It’s perfect timing, they are still too young to be ready for structured activities and outdoor play gives them a chance to work on their movement skills without any instruction or coaching.
Even getting kids out picking berries helps them develop fine motor skills and has them practice bending down. As Kari points out, “If you think about it, this is how our ancestors used to live, so it’s not really rocket science.”
But it’s not really how we live anymore, so now we do have to think about it. And resources like Kari’s Active Kids Club make it easier for parents who didn’t grow up this way themselves.
As Kari told me when we said our goodbyes, “one of the most important things we can give our kids is outdoor play when they are small from [ages] 0-5.”
It’s too bad we didn’t meet when our kids were babies. Maybe she would have invited me to join her outdoor playgroup or convinced me to start one of my own.
To start or join an outdoor playgroup in your area, or for more information on creating an active outdoor lifestyle for your family, check out the Active Kids Club.
Check out these safety reflectors
We often worried about our children being safe outdoors in snowy conditions or after dark. Kari has come up with a stylish solution for keeping kids visible.
“Savvy Mom Approved” ActiveKidsClub.com Safety Reflectors are currently sold in 12 stores in Toronto and can be found online.
These safety reflectors are great gifts for Halloween, Christmas stocking stuffers, and party loot bags. They retail for $4 with discounts on family packs available online.
Simply attach the safety reflectors to jackets, bikes, dog collars, strollers, purses, and backpacks. Anything you want to be more visible in the dark.
The larger reflectors work best for bigger items like backpacks, bikes, purses, and strollers.