[00:00:00] Hey, you are listening to parenting in the first three years, the place where we explore the strategies and soul of parenting from pregnancy through the first three years of life. I’m your host, Anne McKitrick. Thank you so much for joining me.
Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. I’m very excited to have my friend, Dr. Catherine O’Brien. We ran into each other at a board meeting for the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children the few weeks ago and got talking about outdoor play and risky play and all of those things, and we both got so excited about it and I said, let’s do a podcast.
And so thank you Catherine, for joining me here and for talking about this really important thing and, and such a fun thing. Thank you so much for inviting me to have this conversation. I’m, I’m really excited to just, you know, share some of the experiences that I’ve had over the years. Yeah, [00:01:00] I’ve told this story a lot and so I’ll tell it again, but, you know, one of the things that I’ve always known about babies, I.
We fostered babies. And so, you know, I would bring these babies in and they would be so stressed out and, and it would just trying so hard to comfort them. And almost every single time, if they were really, really crying, if I just stepped out onto the front porch and walked around or got on the swing and swang, they would almost always stop crying.
There’s just something about being outside that babies even. Newborn babies, tiny little babies. They love it. And so why don’t we just kind of start with that question. So like, what is the difference between inside and outside for an infant or a toddler? I. Well, you know, one of the things I wanna start with is just my own experience.
And so I have five children, they’re all grown. So I’ve gone through this very different ebbs and flows of like, you know, how they developed at different times in my [00:02:00] life as an adult and, and then also kind of reflecting back on my own experiences inside and outside. So one of the things that I think about is our childhood.
Yours and mine. Most of us. If we were to say, think about what your childhood was like, where did you play, where did you explore? What are the things that you love to do? And my fondest memories were always outside. We lived in a small town. That had a river and a creek and land around us. We had gardens, we had bushes and flowers.
We had this giant rock in front of our house that my dad would paint our last name on every year because I felt like it got washed away. He would repaint it and. So everybody knew where our house was. If it rained outside, we would have this fantastic flood across our front yard, and it was just something for [00:03:00] us to go and die.
We made our own slip and slides like we never had to worry about. You know, just all of the, the things that I think parents think about now with their children. So when my kids were growing up, I wanted that for them and it made me think, you know, we’ve got so many. Opportunities to bring kids outside.
And when they are out out there, you think about, you know, just their, the brain, just their, like you mentioned, just bringing them outside that oxygen, that natural air. We just walk out, the sun touches us. It has an effect on our brain chemistry. It has an effect on our mood and our social emotional development.
And you think about that in terms of, You know, young babies and young children, that happens with them too. We walk outside, the temperature changes, the air changes, and the sounds that they hear. We know that children are very [00:04:00] sensorial, right? Babies have the sensory motor stage, pge, right? We know that there is a lot happening, but almost all of that is based on what senses are firing up at that time.
So feeling the heat of the sun, like listening to the birds or the traffic. I mean, we can’t even think about this in just in terms of what is outside in a park, but what’s just right outside our door if we live in a city? Mm-hmm. What’s outside our door? If we live in a high rise and we don’t have windows and things like that.
Like what? What happens when we walk out the door? I had a teacher explain this to me one time. She said, I really need my. Teacher, she was a, an instructional coach. I need my teachers to go and recognize that the minute that children open up the doors to the playground for, for recess, the joy, the simple joy that comes to their faces as they run outside, you [00:05:00] know, you let them run.
Mm-hmm. Run outside and they catch wind and. Just the simple joy that they feel that has a lot to do with our emotional state and understanding just our own regulation, right? Mm-hmm. But the thing is, what we’ve noticed and, and in some of the, the research that I’ve read is that there’s less and less.
Adults that have young children now that had those experiences as children, a lot of the younger generations are coming in to high school and college now that never had those experiences as children. And so when we have an experience as a child, We tend to pass that on to our children. And so if we don’t have a connection with the outdoors, with nature in a very early stage of our lives, then we are less [00:06:00] tense to do that with our young children as we become adults.
And so a lot of times when you ask that question like, what did you do when you were a child? Most of it has little to do with outside, and most of it has to do with what’s in front of the television or a computer or a device. Mm-hmm. So I think it’s really important for us to recognize that inside.
There’s lots of things to do, but outside is a completely different experience. Even if you’re doing those same things you did inside, reading a book, taking your storybook, go outside, throw a blanket down on the ground, read the story outside, under a tree like. Feeling the wind, listening to the sounds and reading a book has different chemical reactions in your brain.
Mm-hmm. It fires up different senses and it rec, it helps your brain to recognize this is a different environment. Oh, this is something new. And babies learn all those things through that experience. [00:07:00] Right. But if we don’t offer that experience, it’s so, it’s different. Of course, they’re gonna develop no matter what you do.
I think we might have a fear of bringing children outside. I remember being a mom for the first time and I wanted to like bubble wrap my child. Mm-hmm. I was so afraid of, of everything. I was afraid she’d fall I’d, I was afraid she’d hurt herself. I was afraid she’d get sick. I, you know, there were so many fears around having a young child and going outside, but I think.
You know, we know that not every child is different and every temperament is different, right? If I am tuned into what my young baby needs, if I, if I know that my infant really shows joy on their face when we go outside, then I’m gonna do more of that, right? Um, and I hope that overcomes some of the fears that [00:08:00] we have.
Yeah, and just watching your child outside gives you some really great feedback on what’s happening with them when you take them outside. But yeah, that’s a really great point. And I think that’s the same with any of my children, you know, just all five of them, like I said, some of them. When, when they were young.
My, my first one, I feel like, I feel like I was a bit of a helicopter parent, you know, always worried. And then my second one totally taught me that that was not gonna work. Mm-hmm. He was always into something, always climbing on furniture, taking risks that I was not comfortable with, but I had to kind of become comfortable because that’s what he.
Exuded joy through, like this would make him happy. Right. Climbing on things, jumping off of things. Mm-hmm. You know, that kind of thing. So I think it, it does change when, when we see that, that’s what they’re telling us. Where, so as [00:09:00] a, as a parent and your little boy was, you know, wanting to climb and jump and do all of those things that you felt were potentially dangerous, what did you as a parent do in that moment?
Do you remember? How did you manage that? Well, I’d have to say some people used to say that I was just a little bit too aggressive, like with my handholding, and I’ll stay with you and I’m gonna let you do that. But I do think that I, I let go of a lot of that control when I started understanding that he was able to start mitigating some of that risk.
Mm-hmm. When he would climb up something really tall, you know, I’d be there. Okay, I’m standing here, I’m not gonna hold you. I’m just gonna see what you do. But I’m right there to catch you if I need to. Right. And doing that, I think helped me to see that. He was able to start problem solving [00:10:00] and figuring out, oh, I got up this high.
Now have, have to figure out how to get back down. And he might look at me and say like, how do I get down? Or maybe he’ll look at me and he’ll go, I’m, I’m gonna jump. Mm-hmm. Like, okay, let’s, let’s think about where we’re landing, like what’s on the ground, what’s in that space, and maybe helping them to mitigate some of those decisions because, you know, We think that they’re resilient and they’re going to, you know, be they will be okay.
They will. And I think that that’s the, the hardest part is letting go of that worry that they’re not gonna be okay. Right? Yeah. And the fear of they’re not gonna be able to get themselves out of this pickle. Right. And I’ve gotta figure out how to, how to do it for them. Right. Um, but I, I fear that. We spend a lot of time and, and I didn’t do it all right?
I mean, this was only for sure. Yeah. Child, two out of five. By the time I got to the fifth one I was like, alright guys, what are we jumping off today? It’s [00:11:00] interesting to see just the difference between what I wouldn’t allow my oldest kiddos to do and what I was like, all right, fine. With my youngest ones.
Yeah. There’s a lot of, um, comfort that comes from that experience, you know? Right, exactly. Yeah. But I think you bring up a really good point, and that is just to, to stay close, you know, kind of like a spotter, you know? Um, you’re, you’re spotting your baby as they are navigating these things, you know, just even a lot of the.
The play things that we have, the, the arches that are ladders and, and there’s some really cool things that children can climb and play on when they get to the top of it. They have to figure out how to move their body to get back down the other side, and, and so that’s another place where we really need to spot them.
But I think that the temptation is to just pick them up and get them down. The value comes in encouraging them and giving ’em a good nod [00:12:00] forward. You can do this and then just, you know, being there to catch if, if necessary. Yeah, I would say, you know, and I, I had, we did have an experience with our youngest and I would say I, I don’t ever want to discourage, um, parents from going to like public parks and playgrounds and using those play scapes and pieces like that.
There is a, an important consideration that we have, um, when it comes to allowing children to play on structures as opposed to building. And playing on their own structure. So there’s another like aspect of this that I, I love to really talk about because there was an accident that happened when he was three and it was on a play scape.
And so I think it is important for parents to also mitigate risk for their child ahead of time. You know, having them go [00:13:00] and play on equipment that is maybe not necessarily appropriate. Size appropriate, age appropriate, developmentally appropriate, could cause injury. And so I think that some of the fear comes from that.
Mm-hmm. For sure. Um, comes from seeing that there are, um, some things that we just don’t want our kiddos to play on, and that’s okay for parents to make those decisions. And I think mm-hmm. It did create a. An atmosphere for me to be, be fearful of play scapes. Mm-hmm. And I worked in childcare for 25 years and I can tell you there’s lots of play scapes in lots of different formats in different places that we’ve gone to.
And I think that again, Being able to as the, as the adult say, this environment is really important and I need to understand how the environment encourages play. Encourages inquiry and wonder and [00:14:00] discovery, but also feel comfortable in saying, I know that my child is capable and competent and has the ability to mitigate that risk and problem solve.
- It doesn’t happen overnight. Mm-hmm. And I think that’s one of my really important messages to any parent. It doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not always easy. And the fears that we have as parents are real. And they typically come from experiences that we’ve had on our own, either with our own children or as a child ourselves.
Um, and I think that it’s really important for us to, to be able to manage that. Emotion coming into an experience that you’re trying to allow your child to have. You know, you can’t excuse like this, oh, well, why won’t you let your child play? Well, I want my child to play, but this experience taught me that that’s not a safe way for my child to play.
And [00:15:00] so, Having that concern has always been like in the back of my mind, there’s always going to be situations or environments that I think we should be able to check out and do our own little checklist of. Mm-hmm. Okay. I don’t know about that ladder. That looks a little too, yeah. You know, challenging.
Let’s, let’s talk about how that happens. So what you’re saying is when you go to a new place where there’s a new play structure, just to walk around it and look at it and assess, you know, is this gonna be good for my kid or should I not? You know, should we go somewhere else? And, um, yeah. I think a lot of times we ask like, oh, well just, just let them play.
Well, what is, what is play? You know, just freely choosing and a lot of times, um, I’ll, I’ll get the response. Oh, you just want them to just. Be wild and crazy and I’m like, no, no. It’s good for them to make those decisions and, but I also have to feel comfortable and know that I trust that my child is competent in [00:16:00] making decisions about what they’re capable of doing.
Mm-hmm. And I think that part of our conversation originally was, you know, just really understanding that children have. So much more potential than we often give them. Mm-hmm. So, you know, letting them experience things and explore things in a safe way that is important. I don’t, I don’t say just, you know, throw ’em outside and let ’em play.
Right. Especially your babies and toddlers. Yeah. Absolutely not. Absolutely. There, there does need to be some, some adult supervision that comes with that and it, but it really. It’s just beautiful to see them just feel free and joy and not feel like, you know, they’re not capable or somebody doesn’t think that they’re capable of doing something.
Right. Yeah. Right. Yeah. You’re not old enough, you are not, you know, something. Mm-hmm. Typically say those things to kiddos and so, yeah. Um, It’s important [00:17:00] to, to give them that, you know what, I trust that you’re gonna make this decision, but I’m still gonna be right here just in case. That doesn’t go the way that you expect it to.
Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. And you, and you teach your children that you are right there, and that all they have to do is. Say your name, mom help, help, and you’ll be right there. But, um, that’s right. You know, the kids do love to go outside and I can, I’m remembering this one kid that I had in my class when I was an infant teacher at, at a program, and his name was Lane and Lane used to go to baseball practice with his big sister every single night.
She was a softball player, wasn’t baseball, softball. Anyways, he spent a lot of time at the ballpark and on our playground we had one of those big gigantic plastic bats and wolfel balls and. I would toss the ball and he was really good at hitting the ball. He must have been like, I think he was probably about.
18, 20 months old, he was a new runner. Mm-hmm. And, um, and he’d hit it and he’d run and run and run in circles, and then he’d just fall down in the grass and yell, touchdown. [00:18:00] And he would do that all day long. I mean, he would, those kids loved being outside on that playground just because there was grass and there was balls to throw.
And, you know, they didn’t, we didn’t have. Climbing equipment for our babies. We just had mostly some grass and shade and, and balls and toys and mobiles that blew in the wind, and it was just a lovely place for them to be outside. And they are happy. They’re happier outside. You know, I. One of the things that we’ve touched on a little bit, and I know that we talked about this, about the, the, you had gone to this international conference on play, and so would you just define for people who are listening who might not know the difference between what educators call risky play versus just play without that word?
Yeah. What’s ri? What’s risky play? Well, when we add the word risk, we think about problem solving. I. We think about [00:19:00] something that creates a space for us, and we do this even as adults. This is, this is something that I think is a, a part of all of our development. If we are playing, we’re freely creating and innovating and inventing, we’re, you know, problem solving, but we’re project, we, we might have a topic that we’re getting really focused on and we really love.
You know, for example, we love frogs, so we’re really intent on we’re gonna go outside, we’re gonna play, we’re gonna play with this frog. But the risk in that is we recognize that animals have different behaviors. And so we adding this risk factor into, well, should we, should we touch the frog is the frog?
Friendly. How do we know if the frog is friendly? How do we know that the frog doesn’t have germs? Because there’s always right. That piece of some parents [00:20:00] are just not about nature, not about like, getting dirty. Um, and sometimes they’re not about frogs. It’s dirty. Yeah. And they’re like, oh, we don’t touch frogs.
Frogs are poisoned. They don’t, you know, we’re, that’s but for the child, To say, you know, I wanna play with this frog. Well, we have to have some conversations about what the risks are in doing that, and then make some decisions about how we can mitigate that risk, how we can eliminate as much as we can, the potential for harm to happen.
So, In the example of, you know, kiddos climbing trees. There’s a, a great story, this actually happened just a, a few weeks ago, I was at a restaurant and we were sitting outside in the picnic table, this giant tree next to us that had you ever seen a tree that just says, come climb me. Mm-hmm. Like, it just, mm-hmm.
It was a beautiful tree with this nice vertical side and [00:21:00] then this horizontal branch and it just, it just said, come climb me. And I was with a, a group of, of educators, their, their children and two of their children are very, Nature loving. Loved to be outside, loved to climb on things. And one of the children, little girl was climbing up the tree.
She had kicked off her shoes. Uh, I’d say she’s about six years old, so a little bit older. Kicked off her shoes and was climbing up this tree. And you know, I’m sitting at this picnic table kind of watching out of the corner of my eye, and her mom is, Literally just sitting at the picnic table going, yeah, do whatever.
You know, because she had this understanding that her child had done this so many times. There was, uh, ability for this child to mitigate the risk. And if you’re getting up here, you gotta figure out how to get back down. And so as she’s climbing, her brother comes around and he kind of goes on the, the lower end.
He’s younger, um, on the lower end of the horizontal branch. And then another little boy came to [00:22:00] join and he was with his mom. And his mom sat down at another table and he said, Look at her mom. She’s up in the tree. Can I climb the tree? And she said, no, that’s not safe. He said, but she’s up there. And he, she said, well, if I was her mommy, I would tell her no too, because that’s not safe.
And then I proceeded to sit, see her, sit there at the picnic table and just kind of. Wait. And her child was kind of like hovering underneath the table and he was pretty young. Um, I would say probably three or so. Very, very active. Dad comes out and he’s got lunch and he puts the tray down and he’s like, dad climbing the tree.
Can I climb the tree? And he was like, all right, I’ll help you. So his dad is actually helping him climb the tree. Mom has. Tunnel vision, like closed her eyes to anything in her periphery and is looking straight ahead, not [00:23:00] looking. You could see the fear that she had, not thinking that her child had the competency to be able to do what he physically wanted and needed and his body was telling him to do.
So I think that risky is really about mitigating. That level of consequence that could possibly happen if we don’t make the right choices. Mm-hmm. And that doesn’t mean that we’re gonna make the right choices every single time children fall. That’s what happened to my son. And kids are gonna get hurt, they’re gonna get dirty, they’re gonna bump their heads, they’re gonna do all of those things.
I mean, you know when a child is starting to toddle and starting to walk, What’s the first thing an adult wants to do? Like come up and hold your hands. I wanna hold your hands. I wanna make sure you don’t fall. But if we just sat back and just watched to see what they do, they grow that confidence in [00:24:00] themselves to say, I can do this.
Mm-hmm. I am confident and confident and I can do this. And if we don’t, Allow for that process to happen. We perpetuate that wheel of you’re not big enough, you’re not old enough, you’re not ready for that. And that really does damage their ability to risk manage later in life. Mm-hmm. Right. Yeah, that’s a great example.
’cause it really does speak to several things. One is the difference is the, the differences. In the way two parenting partners parent a child and how valuable it is for a parent, a child to have both, you know? Yes. And, and that child is able to adjust to both parents and his experience with both parent is very interesting and it’s really interesting how adaptable children are.
And um, oh my gosh, yes. Absolutely. Yeah. But that’s a, that’s a great story [00:25:00] because I think everyone listening can relate. I mean, I totally understand that mom’s fear. I mean, she doesn’t want her three-year-old following the six-year-old up this tree at a restaurant. Right. And um, but at the same time, he could do it, I guess with a little bit of spotting from his dad.
And so, It was interesting to see how, and dad was right there. He didn’t go far. Mm-hmm. Um, and I think it was probably one of his first experiences being able to do this, the, the little boy. And so, but man, you couldn’t pay money for the look of. Excitement and joy that just came across him when he was like, I’m up here.
I did. I didn’t. I did it. I mean, just, just amazing to see. Yeah. Yeah. You know, I remember so many years ago when I took child development classes as a college student myself. I remember learning, one of my professors would say that children will only climb as far as they’re capable of climbing, that [00:26:00] you can trust that they won’t go higher than they are able to manage.
That’s just always stuck with me over all these years, and I think that’s good advice. You know, I mean, that doesn’t mean you just go let ’em do it. You still are standing right there. But to take your hands off and say, what can you do and, and watch it happen? I think is a, is a really healthy thing for both of us, for the child and also for the parent.
Give some, yeah. And I think at the end of the day, we just kind of think about our level of comfortability mm-hmm. And what we want our children to be able to experience. And it’s, like I said before, it’s not easy. It’s not, uh, gonna happen overnight. And, and some will be more fearful than others, but your own experience.
Plays a really big part in mm-hmm. In how much you allow your children to explore. You know, we know that that research, right, where a mom comes and leaves her child on the floor and she goes just a [00:27:00] little further away and the child can crawl away, but then looks back and always looks to see like, how close this mom, how, how far am I away and how comfortable am I?
With that space, that whole thing that you just said your, your college professor told you is true. They’ll only go as far as they feel comfortable. Mm-hmm. And that goes for toddling away and crawling to climbing trees, to driving cars to, mm-hmm. Right. Yeah. Life, I mean, it, it really expands the, the time, uh, of growth and development.
Right. Yeah. Yeah. That’s great. So as we wrap this conversation up around playing outside and you know, allowing your child to take a few risks as they, um, are able to, do you have any words of encouragement for parents who might be listening? I actually, if you would allow me, I have a quote that I think speaks.
From my heart, honestly, and it’s from Maria [00:28:00] Montessori, who is Pioneer of Child Development. And she says, let the children be free. Encourage them, let them run outside when it’s raining. Let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water. And when the grass of the meadows is wet with due, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet.
Let them rest peacefully. When a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade, let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning. And I just truly believe that we have to find in ourselves the ability to let our children be competent, feel good about themselves, and know that that’s gonna carry them through their life.
That’s really a beautiful quote and a beautiful way to end this conversation. It really, I love how she just really is speaking to a child, being a part of, and [00:29:00] living and playing in nature as the core of their being. That’s really’s really a great idea. I. Letting children outside is just a human, right?
Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for, uh, having this conversation with me and, and being on this episode. Thank you so much, Dr. Katt. Oh, thank you so much. And I had such a good time. I hope that we get a chance to do this again sometime, maybe over a new topic and. Can help our, our parents and families out there to navigate this infant, toddler life.
Yeah. Thank you so much. We’ll do that. Thank you. If you love today’s episode, take a minute and subscribe to our podcast. And one last thing, I’d love to pray for you and your baby. If you’d like for me to. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your request can be as simple as just one word. Or it can include [00:30:00] an explanation.
Either way, you can trust that. I will pray for you. It’s a quiet, simple way that I can connect with you and your family and support you in your parenting journey.