Having two children and observing hundreds of others, it is clear that the sphere of influence as a parent is limited. Children enter the world with their own personalities and potential. Yet we have a vital role in the nurturing of our children through the food, environment, education, and social and cultural experiences we provide as parents. But the times they are a-changin’. In just the past couple of generations—and for the first time in human history—toys have become a major influence in raising children. Children now spend more time indoors than outdoors, and children’s ability to partake in unstructured play has all but vanished.
From the birth of my daughter and for the last six years (during which time my young son was born), I’ve meticulously tested, observed, and refined the experiences I provide for my children (now ages three and six). Like any new parent, my hope was to evolve from an Aspiring Good Dad to a Super Dad, so I was eager to find ways to not only capture my children’s attention, but also contribute to their physical, emotional, mental, and social development. As costs of supporting a family continued to spiral beyond my wildest anticipation (I mean, seriously?!), my evaluation of toys and experiences also centered on return on investment. I don’t want to spend money on toys that turn out to be garbage and break hours after purchase, or find hundreds of toys building up in my house and gathering dust because there’s just too much. I don’t want to enroll my children in activities to prep as an Olympian that they’ll never be or get scholastically ahead when academic education isn’t what they need. I don’t want to make them play in ways and places to satisfy my adult goals. I want what is best for them.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly following pure scientific method in my experimentation. But as I watched and tried new things, I began to notice patterns. A hypothesis began to form in my exhausted mind, but with only two children—and being time starved—I eventually turned to research to accelerate my understanding and validate my suspicions. I researched obsessively, night after night, month after month—buying dozens of books and poring over the Internet, devouring every article and piece of educational material I could find. I talked to my children’s teachers, to friends, to my own parents.
What I discovered about the history of child-raising, play, and parenting styles around the globe profoundly affected my view and day-to-day approach in raising my own children. I’ve discovered that:
- The dominant culture of mass-produced and marketed toys is new.
- Young children’s capabilities are far-reaching, and we are overprotecting them.
- Play, and especially risky play, is vital to children’s growth.
- There isn’t good guidance for parents in how to best participate in children’s play.
- Questioning the status quo is confronting and challenging, but critical.
- The setup in our homes greatly determines children’s play opportunities and outcomes.
The results of this curiosity—of this quest—have given me much delight. I am confident in the choices I make for my children. More importantly, I’ve witnessed repeatedly the joy and happiness with which my children find their play when it is unstructured, outdoors, and with the right materials.
This book presents the results of these six years of experimentation and research.
What I have learned and share in this book may seem counterintuitive. The findings challenge the beliefs of the majority. My own belief system and faith in common practices have been shaken, and this can be terribly inconvenient. Friends and relatives have often found themselves at the opposite end of a spectrum from me when it comes to children’s toys and children’s play. Ironically, the “toys” I’ve found to be the best—the ones that blow other toys away in price, replay, and longevity—consist of tried and true tools for child development. The toys that seem to perform the best have much of human history backing their success, and they directly impact how the children play.
In this book, I share my discovery, practices, and ingredients for successful backyard play. I believe this is a tremendous value for children age two to six. This book has been inspired by my personal journey, verified by decades of research, and championed by children around the world.
In the first part of the book, I share what I’ve learned as I’ve delved into the world of Loose Parts, Adventure Playgrounds, Risky Play, and Playwork.
In the second part of the book, I provide seven different accounts of my experiences in the backyard, examples of how to do it yourself in practice, and where you can get the materials.
My hope is that you can read the entire book today and take action tomorrow. Nothing has proved more rewarding to me than finding ways to help my children in their own journeys.