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  • Rebecca P. Cohen

Weaving Outdoor Play into Every Day Life

This is the transcript of a speech presented at Partners Outdoors 2016 RECx at U.S. Department of the Interior.

My big idea is a rather simple one, but one that could very well transform your life.

Think back to your best memory of outdoor play.

When was that?

You might have been a child, climbing a tree or getting lost in creative play outside, creating worlds with your imagination.

You might have been an adult, on vacation with loved ones, or spending time outside with a child.

Smiling, laughing, open to adventure. Making time stand still.

What if you could bottle that feeling and bring it into your every day life?

Ten years ago, I would wave to my neighbors every morning as they smiled, retired, on their way to their daily bike ride.

I had two toddlers, scooping them up, putting them in the car and racing to daycare and then to work.

And in the afternoon, I ran down the hall, walking in between doorways, trying to make sure that my kids weren’t the last to be picked up.

Our time outside was limited to precious weekends and rare vacations.

One Saturday, between rushing from event to event, we were at a birthday party at a local park.

My older son, he was four at the time. He looked up at a patch of mature trees, and he said, “Are we in the forest mommy?”

It was at that moment that I realized that I was not living day to day in appreciation of the nature around me as I did when I was a child.

And then I wondered, what if…

What if I got outside every day, and what if I get my kids to come along with me?

It would be a challenge, because a lot of the time, I didn’t feel like I had the time.

So, one New Year’s Day, I stepped outside with my kids.

On the surface, it was not a beautiful day.

It was a cold, grey, misty rainy day in suburban Washington, DC…in Virginia.

Within minutes, my two boys and I were laughing and smiling, peeling off layers. Listening to the leaves under our feet, watching squirrels scamper up trees.

And I made a silent promise to myself, that every day, no matter the weather, no matter my mood, I would step outside with my kids, and see what happened.

I wanted to capture that feeling of being outside when I was young.

I wanted my children to have that feeling and I wanted to experience that feeling again too.

And it wasn’t until I had kids that I realized the obsession I had with plants and then gardening in my own postage stamp yard.

It’s because I wanted to be outside.

And my son’s question, “Are we in the forest mommy?” had me realizing MY earliest memory as a child…and it was in outdoor play.

I remember at the age of three sitting in the dirt, eating sugar snap peas straight from the pod in my family’s garden in Illinois.

Then when I was four, we moved from Illinois to Virginia and we never had a garden again.

But that one experience, that one memory of being outside for me as a child, changed everything for me as an adult.

In my commitment to step outside everyday for my well being and the well being of my family, I discovered ways to fit time outside into our schedule, which became a book called 15 Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect with Your Kids.

I learned to fit time outside into our routine and to use the time in between our schedules for outdoor play as well.

  • My children would get ready faster in the morning with the promise of 15 Minutes Outside before school.

I promise you, just try it; see if it works.

They were motivated to be more independent, getting dressed faster, making their lunches faster, walking the dog just for the opportunity to play 15 Minutes Outside before we had to leave.

  • I would also take the opportunity to stop by the park on the way home,

  • Have picnic dinners,

  • Do homework on a blanket,

  • I learned to keep a blanket in the car and ready by the door.

  • If my children asked for playdates - and we would have lots of playdates – I would say, “As long as you play outside.”

And the neighborhood kids loved coming to my house because I would let them play outside.

In the winter, we would have muffins and hot cocoa outside for breakfast before school or after school for snack.

We learned to make time for time outside when the sun went down.

In Winter, when the days were shorter, the kids didn’t have to stay up as late to watch for stars or to take flashlights or battery operated glow sticks outside to play tag.

I even made a commitment to say “YES” whenever they asked me to play outside, even when I didn’t want to.

And it in was those moments of stepping outside “even when I didn’t want to” that I was creating memorable moments for my children, that I was helping them create their earliest memories of fun and outdoor play.

I’d see their outdoor adventures described in writing assignments at school and know that my daily outdoor play commitment to them was making a positive difference.

And now, 10 years later, they’re a tween and a teen. And they still get outside.

The activities have changed a little.

We’ve made choices about where we live to be in walking or biking distance of school.

They’ve started making choices about activities they are involved in and first jobs that they’ve had, whether it’s refereeing a soccer game or helping young children with their first experiences outside at camp.

We all have an obligation to ourselves to live life fully and one of the ways that we can do that for ourselves, our children, and future generations is to think back to your best memories of outdoor play and pursue that joy and wonder even in the smallest of ways every day.

Look at your life now and think creatively about how you can bring the outdoors into your every day life, whether at home, at school, at work, and in between. It IS possible. And we can always do more.

I started teaching outdoor lessons to my children’s classrooms, and then brought those lessons to other schools and programs, whether

  • having students experience the plant lifecycle firsthand,

  • journaling or drawing outside, or

  • creating with what is around them in unstructured play.

I’ve now taught outdoor lessons to over 6,000 children around the world, and working with kids is my favorite thing to do, sparking outdoor play that just might change a child’s life for the better, as it did mine.

My mission is to connect the world through outdoor play every day.

I have a children’s character now, and his name is PJ. PJ is the essence of every child: curious and full of wonder.

We are all PJ.

PJ loves to wear his pj’s, his fireman’s hat, and his boots. Every chance he gets, PJ likes to play outside.

When you think back to your best memories of outdoor play, you are being PJ. What does being PJ look like for you?

PJ's Backyard Adventures preserves the theme of outdoor play and learning through play at a critical time when kids are impressionable - at a time they are learning to read.

Outdoor play deserves to be something as routine and important as brushing our teeth.

Let’s continue bringing the outdoors into our everyday lives.

What choices can you make to:

  • stop by the park,

  • take a child fishing,

  • ride a bike or

  • find a new path.

Notice the changes in nature that are always happening. Even the same path has something new to appreciate every day.

Let’s connect the world through outdoor play.

We were all PJ at one point; we were all children wanting to play outside, inviting others to play outside, finding cooperation and understanding in nature.

I invite you with me on this journey to keep creating memories through time outside and inspire the world.

Hashtag #beoutsideandgrow with the memories you create and share in your own style and brand of outdoor play.

My name is Rebecca P. Cohen, this is one of my best memories of outdoor play, and my website is