Lessons From Getting Lost: Tweens, Tech, and Outdoor Play

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Penny Skateboard

If you have any questions or need inspiration as to how to get your young children outdoors, you needn’t look any further than Pinterest or the multitude of blogs available to us to find something that suits you.  I love that kind of stuff and use it frequently.  What nobody ever told me, though, was that it would get harder as the kids got older.

With younger children it seems the main things that keep them inside are the weather and motivation on the part of the parents.  There’s not a lot that will compete for their attention, and just about any excuse to spend some time with Mom or Dad will get them out the door.

My dilemma?  How to get my tween outside more.  For her, nature must compete with television, texts, and the lure of her iPod.  And even when those things are removed from the picture, there are other things she’d rather do than go outside.  Playgrounds are getting too boring.  She’s not into sports.  And all those adorable activities I’ve pinned?  Too babyish.  And so I find myself in new territory here … how do you encourage outdoor play to tweens and teens who feel they’re getting too old to simply “play?”

What does interest her these days is combining outside time with the feeling of being independent – riding her bike to a friend’s house or walking to Taco Bell.  For the last month or so, she’s been asking for a Penny Skateboard.  I’ll be honest, I had my doubts.  They aren’t cheap, and I was worried she wouldn’t actually use it.  She doesn’t really ride her bike just for the sake of riding her bike, and I didn’t think the skateboard would be any different. But she persisted and saved her money, and so I told her I would pay for half.  It arrived a few days ago and you would’ve thought Christmas came early.

Suddenly all she wants to do is be outside, riding her skateboard.  She rides it around the neighborhood, but want she really wants to do is ride it places … by herself.  The other day she wanted to ride it to the local ice cream shop, which is about a mile and a half away.

There’s a straightforward way to get there, and then there are a few shortcuts through neighborhoods that you can take.  She decided to take a shortcut on the way home, and instead found herself lost.

I got a text from her, saying she was lost and giving me the nearest address.

I sent her a text back, with a screenshot of Google Maps, showing her where she was in relationship to our home.

She texted me back, saying she figured it out and knew where she was now.

Suddenly it hit me that instead of viewing these tween years and all of its distractions as a doomed cliff to the end of outdoor play, it can be a fun challenge.  It can also be a way to mesh technology, the outdoors and the need for independence in some really creative ways that will serve her well throughout life.

Had she not been connected to her various social networks, such as Instagram, she would’ve never known about the Penny skateboard.  It’s certainly not anything I would’ve ever thought of myself.  Even if I did know about it, based on what I thought I knew about my daughter, I wouldn’t have purchased it for her.

Had she not had access to technology that allowed her to text, she would’ve gotten lost and not been able to reach me so quickly.  What had started out as a positive experience could’ve quickly turned into something that left her feeling scared and panicked.  She might be wary of venturing out again.  It could’ve squelched that spirit of adventure that she has, leaving her afraid to try new paths or wander just for the sake of it.

Had she not been given baby steps from an early age to venture out on her own, she would’ve never been able to attempt a trip to the ice cream shop by herself.  This didn’t happen overnight.  It started small … first our front yard, then a neighbor’s house, then down the street, then the playground a few blocks over.  Baby step after baby step of proving she’s responsible and proving to myself that we can slowly let go.  Had she not been shown that she can do these kinds of things on her own, this experience would’ve been a monumental disaster.

It really inspired me to keep pushing forward as she heads into her teen years.  It forced me to rethink how social networking and technology will influence her desires, and how these “distractions” (which are a fact of life now), can be used to encourage playfulness and stimulate growth just as easily as they can inhibit it.  I just have to think outside the box a little more than I did when she was a preschooler.  It made me resolve to pay more attention and ask more questions about what drives her, and what she enjoys doing, and then to encourage those passions that take her offline.

Quite simply, it made me realize that we’re not headed off a cliff … we’re springboarding onto something bigger and more exciting.