Balancing School and Outdoor Play

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This last month has been a whirlwind around here.  Mason just started first grade and it’s been a MAJOR adjustment for the whole family.  You see, having gone to 1/2 day kindergarten, this is his first year of full day school.  Yes, my 6-year-old is now stuck inside a school for 6.5 hours a day.

It’s kicking our butts.

I’m not sure if it’s because it’s his first time in school this long or because he’s coming off a summer full of play (likely a combination of the two), but it’s been hard.  I pick him up at 3:30 and he’s exhausted, which as you can imagine makes evenings more difficult as well.

You see, Mason is my outdoor kid.  From the time that he was really little, I knew that he needed a significant amount of time outside each day in order for both of us to maintain our sanity.  He was the toddler who would be out running around the yard in his pajamas before breakfast and the kid that pretty much dashes straight through the house to the backyard after running errands with me.  It’s been good for him.  No, it’s been great for him.

Now he’s stuck at school for most of the day with only 2 recess and a 15-minute lunch.  I’m pretty sure that if he were an adult with a full-time job he’d get more scheduled breaks than he does in first grade.  Now don’t get me wrong.  He goes to a really great school and his teacher is beyond amazing – we feel incredibly blessed for all of that.  However, he’s now only home for about 4 hours a day after school.  Somehow in those short hours we have to do homework (though usually only 10-20 mins), have snacks, eat dinner, and read and bathe the kids.  On top of that factor in that this is really our ONLY time in the day for Andrew and I to teach them the things that we think are important and reinforce the beliefs we have and it’s crazy.  Oh, and did I mention that somewhere in there I need to pack in a full days worth of playing outside?

Right now it’s all a delicate balancing act.  Some days things work together perfectly while others end in tears.  Here are a few things that we’ve done to help balance school and outdoor play (obviously we’re far from perfect, but these things sure have helped):

  • We aren’t doing extra-curricular activities for now.  I only have 4-hours with the kids – I’m not giving that time to anyone!
  • As soon as the kids have a snack and a little down time, they are sent outside.  Luckily we have pretty much the coolest backyard ever so they could be happy all day just out there.
  • We usually stay after school for a while and let the kids play with friends.  It’s a great way to burn off a little energy and actually have some significant play time during the day.
  • We eat dinner outside every night (weather permitting).  This usually leads to full-family play as soon as the forks are put down.
  • Occasional bike-rides before school while Andrew and I are running.
  • My kids have been doing almost no chores after school.  I try and pack those in in the morning.  Right now they need to run more than they need to hone their dishwasher loading skills, and I’m okay with that.
  • As soon as Andrew gets home, he’s changing and outside playing with the kids.  They cherish that time running, jumping on the tramp together and playing catch (yes, he’s the best dad ever).

I’m well aware that I don’t have all of the answers, so I decided to ask some outdoor experts – some other outdoor bloggers.  Here are some of their tips for balancing school and outdoor play:

Lindsey from Outside Mom says: We have banned all electronic devices M-Th not for homework per say, but so that we can focus on playing outside after school. Yard work, swings, fishing, playgrounds, walks in dirt roads, building legos outside, drawing pics in the porch, things that are close. He also rides his bike to and from school, so that helps.

Corey of Backcountry Parenting says:  During the week activities are difficult to fit in amidst dinner and chores. Our outside play time is more on the weekends. Make it a point though to get out for at least 30-45min a day if possible. Do small things outside for short amounts of time.

Kate from Rocks and Sun says:  With dinner, baths and bed, it is hard to get in much outside time during the week. We have found that we like to just take a short walk around the block in the evening. Or go outside and work in the yard for 20 minutes after supper. It doesn’t have to be a whole, crazy adventure or planned “outdoor learning experience.” It could just be 10 minutes of watching clouds change color at sunset, ya know?

Kari from Active Kids Club says: I’m so lucky to live and play friendly and walking and biking friendly community. At our school the kids will also play after pick up for an hour and the parents will stay and chat. I also have created and outdoor play space as well in my backyard. In the winter we will flood an ice rink as well in a park close to my house.

Linda from  A Nature Mom says:  We are focusing on more outdoor activities during the weekend and little things outside during the weekdays (like a walk around the neighborhood after school / dinner, going to the community swimming pool, or a bit of playtime at the local park). I also take my son to school twenty minutes early every day, so he can play with his buddies on the playground before classes begin.

Traci from Walk Simply says: School is 7:45-2:05 so the kids play outdoors after school for an hour or so. They also have several sports lessons each week. Chores do suffer in our home, but I’m fine with that. We also play outdoors in the evening often. We live close to the school so we walk most days to and from. I have found one of my daily goals is to wear the kids out so we choose physical activities such as swimming, running etc. it does become trickier when homework kicks in, but just make outdoor play a priority and it will all work out.

Sharon from Active Kids Active Family says: We specifically pick our kids up every day so they can play with school friends for up to an hour. It is great cause you get to know the other families, and they get to play with kids that they don’t see in the neighborhood (kids go to a French immersion school outside our area). And we try and get stuff in on the weekends.

Andy from Pale Spruce says:  I’ve got kids in 1st and 4th grades and it’s getting harder with more homework in 4th grade. If you have sports or music after school, sometimes there isn’t enough daylight, but on the other days you have to try and get out. One thing we have done is make a habit of riding bikes to school and back on Thursdays. Another option is to make meals that require little prep or maybe even do a picnic dinner so you can be outside to play and eat.

Alyssa from The Kid Project says:  I know home school isn’t for everyone, but a huge fringe benefit is the time issue. Time outdoors and flexibility with travel. On the other hand, we’ll have a rude awakening when/if we move to traditional school. Lastly, I think It only gets worse as they get older, no matter the style
Of schooling!

Tanya from Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies says:  My son is only in preschool three half days per week. But what we do is alternate school with outdoor play. M,W,F is school and Tue/Thur we have outdoor playgroups. After school we usually go for bike rides too.

Thanks everyone for your advice!  If you’re looking for more great info on the topic, be sure to check out what some of my experts have written on the subject:

Back to School: Go Play

Tips for getting families outside all year round

Staring an Outdoor Playgroup

I Home School My Kids.  I am not raising freaks.

Why We homeschool

What has worked for your family?  I’d LOVE your advice!  Feel free to comment here or chime in on our facebook page.

About Jessica Averett

Hi, I’m Jessica, a mom of 5 kids and married to my favorite adventure partner. I love to bike, ski, camp and hike. We've visited over 40 countries with our kids, but are equally happy on the road as we are exploring our home state of Utah.

8 thoughts on “Balancing School and Outdoor Play”

  1. Still working on that… our kids leave the house at 7:30 and don’t get home until 3:30 – school is from 8-3. No extra time in the morning since I’m usually prodding them to get ready and eat. We walk nearly a half mile up and over a hill to the bus stop (and home again) so that is some time and energy outdoors, but really after snacks are over they only have an hour to unwind before dinner, bath and bed. Repeat. It stinks. I’m with you on the no extracurriculars!

  2. What a wonderful post! I just started blogging for Nature’s Stepping Stone’s and we are trying to share with families the importance of giving their children time to spend outside. I’d love permission to link to this post from my blog to give parents some ideas on how to still make room for outside play after your child enters school full time. The hope for the blog I’m writing for is to share with parents the developmental benefits of getting outside. I’m working with a woman who’s background is in OT.

  3. My son doesn’t get home until 4.15pm so we are trying to make the most of any time outside we have. He has started catching the bus to and from school which gives us a reasonable walk to and from the bus stop and we get there early enough in the morning that he can play with friends. We’ve just created some more free-play space in our back yard and are trying to get out there whenever we can either before or after dinner depending on what time we eat. I am frustrated with the school system though that gives kids only 20min recess in a 61/2 hour school day and then homework to do in the evening with a 4pm school finish! We are also not used to the cold weather so I’m wondering what people do for outdoor time when it gets really cold.

  4. This is so awesome and encouraging. So glad to have come across your blog! Keep up the good work. Reassuring to see other families growing together outdoors.


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