- Written by Tanya Koob; Photo: Hiking in Edworrthy Park, Photo Courtesy of Tanya Koob
The snow is slowly melting and spring is right around the corner. It’s about this time of year that most of us start thinking about how we can get our children outside more, how we can get them away from the television after school and how we can show them that playing outdoors is fun! Children who play outside tend to be happier, healthier, more secure and better-rounded in general. They get much-needed exercise and extra levels of vitamin D to top it off. Plus, they’ll sleep better at night. What’s not to like about all of that? Plus, they’ll sleep better at night. What’s not to like about all of that?
The challenge I’ve found, however, is that most children will have more fun outside when they have friends to play with. Tag just isn’t as much fun when they have nobody to chase but mom or the family dog. And cautious children like my son often need a bit of encouragement or positive peer pressure to try new things, whether climbing up a big hill or running down it.
That was my motivation for starting a casual outdoor playgroup a little over a year ago when my son was just three years old. I decided that our group would focus on toddlers and preschoolers between the ages of two and five, and that we would meet once a week for simple outdoor play and adventure. We would also meet year round, rain or shine. Parental involvement and supervision would be necessary to keep the group safe and we would welcome anybody who wanted to come out and get to know us.
We gathered as families to play in the mud, wade through creeks, hike the natural areas of Calgary and explore hidden places right in our beautiful city. We’ve gone sledding, had winter marshmallow roasts and introduced the children to the best local skating ponds.
Our motto has been: Toddlers and preschoolers outside running their crazy into the wind! My son is now four years old and many of the same people have been coming out to our outdoor playgroup for over a year now. We’ve made a lot of great friends, and we even get together on weekends to go camping, hiking or skiing together. We moms have also become great friends and it’s not uncommon for us to get together for an evening of skiing at COP, a Saturday snowshoeing trip or even a girls’ weekend away on occasion.
Things to consider when forming your own outdoor playgroup:
1. Know what you are trying to create.
What age of children would you like your group to attract?
When will you meet? After school? Mornings or afternoons mid-week? Weekends?
Where do you want to meet? City playgrounds? Natural areas in the city? In the mountains on weekends?
What will your focus be? Playground play, free play in natural areas, hiking, stroller walks for moms with babies, structured play with crafts and nature lessons? Active play focused on sports and skills?
Do you want to create a closed group made up of family friends, or do you want to advertise your group through posters, social media and word of mouth?
How big do you want your group to be? Or will you restrict the size?
How often will you meet? Once a week? Once or twice a month?
Who will be the organizer or will you split leadership between a few families?
What guidelines will you follow for weather? Our group doesn’t meet if it’s below -15 with wind chill.
How will you plan your playdates? Facebook page events, weekly emails, monthly schedules?
2. Find members.
Depending on the kind of group you plan to create, you may want to advertise a lot or a little. There are many places you can look when trying to recruit members from churches to schools, community clubs, sports groups and family friends. Chances are each person you invite will know one other person to invite. Your group will explode from there. Word of mouth will often do most of your advertising for you so that you’ll never have to make a single poster or flyer.
Social media can also be a big asset when creating an outdoor playgroup. By forming a group or page through Facebook, you can invite your friends to the new playgroup and make it simple for them to invite other friends. This is an easy way to plan events, post photos of past playdates and create a vibrant community of families.
3. Pick a start date and get going.
Choose the date, get out and keep meeting up even if you are alone for the first couple of playdates. Others will soon join you. Start sharing photos amongst your friends to generate excitement. It takes a while for new things to gain momentum so be patient and meet with the goal of having fun whether there are two other children or 20 other children.
Make a decision this spring to be the family that plays, runs around and laughs - together. If you can add a little family puddle jumping, playing in the mud and hiking, it’ll be that much more fun and memorable. By joining or creating a family outdoor playgroup, you will be giving your children a support group to grow up, play and learn with. And you might just have fun doing it too.
Tanya loves hiking, camping, skiing and all things mountain-related. She is the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, rockiesfamilyadventures.com, and the founder of Calgary Outdoor Playgroups on Facebook. More information about her playgroups can be found on her blog.