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Want a Healthy Son? Send Him to Play Outside

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

It’s that time of year when our kids head back to school classrooms, trading their swimsuits for school uniforms and beach towels for backpacks.

Even though we parents typically begin the school year signing our kids up for this activity or that club, don’t neglect to recognize your kids’—especially your boys’—need to spend time outdoors. Leave some time for your son to enjoy outside play after a long school day inside the same four walls.

Boys love being outside.

A healthy boy needs that sense of adventure—and the reality checks that the outdoors give him.

Some scholars say that the male brain is wired to enjoy the outdoors, starting with the fact that boys are visually more attracted to movement—including, presumably, the movement of game through the woods—than girls are.

Other psychologists attribute the male fascination with nature to a desire for, a memory of, freedom. Boys see nature as a larger arena where they can roam and daydream, and men feel that in the outdoors they can safely express their aggressive tendencies in sports or hunting.

Anthropologists relate a boy’s fascination with the outdoors to his evolutionary roots, when men were hunters who provided for the tribe, and boys were apprentices who proved themselves in rites of initiation that required courage and developing hunting skills.

Whatever the reason, most boys simply love to be outside.

They love to romp in nature because it feels good. In my experience, a boy’s fascination with tree bark, snakes, bullfrogs, and insects stems from an outworking of his physiological and his psychological needs. That’s a scientific way of saying that boys like nature because it offers them a physical and imaginative testing ground.

Boys need forts to play in and asphalt for street hockey games with their buddies. It’s in those places that they learn confidence and decision-making. It’s chasing “bad guys” through the woods and in pick-up, sandlot football games that boys find a healthy venue for growing into men.

Boys actually thrive more when they organize games and adventures and projects on their own, outside with their buddies, than when they’re being forced into organized activities or shuttled from one organized sport to another. When boys play in organized sports, they always play with boys their own age, when what that boys need—and what they can get when they play on their own in their neighborhood—is a mixture of older and younger boys. When they play with kids from different grades, they get to feel what it’s like to be the “runt” and to grow into a leader.

It’s important for parents to be there for their kids; but it’s also important that we not micromanage them. When boys play in their tree house, it’s not necessary for Mom and Dad to be crouching down inside. In fact, they shouldn’t be. When adults supervise and set the rules for every outdoor game, boys don’t learn how to assert themselves in their unique, individual ways.

When parents run the show, no one can be king; no one can be ball boy; no one can be ghost runner between the bases. We all, as parents, want our son to be the pitcher, but that isn’t real life. Boys who begin on top and who stay on top because a parent is always there two steps ahead of him clearing his way and talking to the coaches (or being the coach) robs him of opportunities to learn to navigate his own way—to take some bumps and learn to get back up again.

Boys, like men, tend to hide many emotions and lock them inside. Rather than cry openly or talk out their problems with siblings and friends the ways that girls do, boys often turn in on themselves. They need somewhere to go when they can be alone and think—and nature provides that refuge.

So, this school year, make time in your boy’s schedule for outside adventures with his neighborhood buddies. By doing so, you’re helping him grow into a strong and well-rounded leader.

How do you encourage your son to play outside?


This post is adapted from Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons.

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