Worry Free Unstructured Play: The Hummingbird Approach

The hummingbird parent will come nearer or farther from activities that seem high risk or low risk, always evaluating but rarely interfering.

This approach is becoming an excellent method for those parents wanting something more for their child than the average American child who spends more than seven hours each day inside in front of some electronic screen (television, computer, tablet, etc.). The research is clear that this indoor screen time is directly correlated to increasing obesity rates, a shockingly high rate of ADHD diagnoses and a significant rise in pediatric prescriptions for antidepressants; these parents understandably want a different outcome.

Research also supports an antidote to these detrimental health issues, and it is readily available to children of all races and socio-economic levels. Outdoor, unstructured free play has numerous benefits for the physical, mental, social and emotional well-being of our children.

The average American child spends four to seven minutes a day outside; the Hummingbird parent knows to demand and create for more time outside!

The hummingbird parent approach to unstructured play isn’t me-time on the phone for these parents; it’s truly an exercise in observation and restraint. We’ve reviewed unstructured play and the benefits in a previous blog, but it’s good to remember that this type of play has been proven to help with executive function, regulation, help symptoms of ADHD and enable children to become happier, smarter and more creative.


  • Children who play outside are more active, making them healthier and much less likely to be obese.
  • Outdoor play increases exposure to Vitamin D, helping protect children from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes and other health concerns.
  • Children who play in the dirt outside tend to be stronger and have healthier immune systems. They also have fewer occurrences of asthma, eczema and allergies.
  • Children who play outside tend to laugh more, which lowers blood pressure and relieves stress.
  • Children who play outside have better distance vision and fewer instances of near-sightedness.


  • Children who have regular time outside are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.
  • In schools with environmental education programs, there are higher standardized test scores in math, reading, writing and listening, as well as critical thinking skills.


  • Within minutes of being exposed to nature, children’s stress levels are decreased.
  • Being in nature results in more thoughtful interactions as well as greater value for community and closer relationships with family and friends
  • While outside, children become more adventurous, better able to assess risk and more effective at problem solving and critical thinking.
  • Recent research suggests that the microbes in the dirt – specifically Mycobacterium vacccae – may stimulate serotonin production in the brain, which is what anti-depressant drugs do, but without any unnatural or unsafe side effects.


You can strengthen your child’s immune system, social and critical thinking skills, and happiness while decreasing her chance of obesity, stress, and anxiety levels. Here’s how:

How To Facilitate Hummingbird Unstructured Play:

excerpt from Children & Nature Network Blog Post- HUMMINGBIRD PARENTS:

1. Take your kids outdoors. If we want our children or grandchildren to experience nature, we’ll need to be more proactive than parents of past generations. When my wife and I raised our boys, we certainly felt the fear, and they didn’t have the freedom to roam that we did.  But our sons did experience nature — in the canyon behind our house, building their forts, digging their holes, sitting under a tree coated with butterflies, all within our eyesight. We took them hiking, and I took them fishing, often. And we tried to stay out of their way so they could explore on their own.

2. Be a hummingbird parent. Whitaker suggests, “In the range from helicopter to neglect—I probably fall a bit more toward helicopter. In fact, I call myself a hummingbird parent. I tend to stay physically distant to let them explore and problem solve, but zoom in at moments when safety is an issue (which isn’t very often).” Notice that she isn’t hovering over her kids with nature flash cards. She stands back and makes space for independent nature play — albeit not as free as she experienced as a child, this play is important nonetheless.

3. Teach your child to watch for behaviors more than for strangers.That’s the advice of family psychologist John Rosemond. Telling a child to stay away from strangers is relatively ineffective. ‘Stranger’ is not a concept young children understand easily, he maintains. Instead, children ought to be taught to be on the lookout for specific threatening behaviors and situations. Also, get to know your neighbors. Create a play-watch group and ask fellow parents to sit on front stoops or porches or lawns several hours a week; that way, they are available at a distance as children play.

4. Create or join a family nature club. Nature Clubs for Families are beginning to catch on across the country; some have membership lists of over 400 families. The idea is that multiple families meet to go for a hike, garden together, or even do stream reclamation. We hear from family nature club leaders that when families get together, the kids tend to play more creatively — with other kids or independently — than during single family outings. C&NN’s Nature Clubs for Families offers a free downloadable guide on how to start your own.

5. Develop a walking/activity buddy system. Encourage kids to do nature activities together. It’s cheap and grassroots based, suggests Juliet Robertson, a nature play specialist in Scotland. If there were agreed times and routes, then folk could meet up and walk together or bike together. Some young people are creating their own kids’ nature clubs.

6. Get the safety information you need.Become familiar with good resources for safety tips in the outdoors, including those with information on how to guard against ticks. One such site is the Centers for Disease Control Web site. The Web site for theAudubon Society of Portland offers excellent general information on living with a variety of urban wildlife.

7. Take back the trails. On C&NN’s online discussion group, which is a great place to talk with other parents and learn about the movement (Ken Finch of Green Hearts offers an excellent essay on this topic there, too), Patty Born Selly makes this suggestion for dealing with fear: The best thing we can do as a community is to take back our trails — slowly, over time, we will reach a tipping point of sorts. The more people are out there, using our parks, using our trails, enjoying our natural areas, the more our collective comfort with this kind of thing increases.

8. Getting Dirty is OK. Nature connection depends on firsthand, multisensory encounters. It’s a messy, dirty business—picking leaves and flowers, turning over rocks, holding wriggling worms, and splashing in ponds. Rather than saying “no” every time a child wants to pick up a stick, throw a rock, climb a tree, or jump into the mud, take a deep breath and cheer them on instead. Remember, clothes can be washed, and cuts heal.


More Outdoor Ideas!

  1. Make outside time a DAILY priority
  2. Let your child lead the way on a trail walk (a few yards in front)
  3. Purchase rain boots for playing in the mud, not just the rain
  4. Send your child outside with a shovel and bucket, spare a part of the yard just for them- to dig up!
  5. Allow your child to get dirty! Dirt is HEALTHY!
  6. Take time out to orient your child with poison ivy and poison oak.
  7. Explore outside with your child. How many different bird sounds can you hear? How does the grass feel on your feet? Do things in your yard look different than they did last time?
  8. Be the “guide on the side” – ask questions and help children find the answers but don’t feel compelled to teach. Allow your child to discover and explore the outdoors.

What about on a rainy day? Go outdoors with these activities!



  1. Go on a rainbow hunt.  Not just in the sky, but also, look for colors of the rainbow all abound you.  You could take a treasure bag and look for natural materials in the colors of the rainbow and bring  them home to stick on contact paper.
  2. Go dancing in the rain.  You can make up a dance with an umbrella!
  3. Look for reflections in puddles.
  4. Take photos of rain droplets on things such as spiders webs.
  5. Do some mud painting.  You can use a twig or leaves to paint with the mud on paving stones or fences or on paper.
  6. Look for rain shadows.  Patches of dry that can be found where something has been covering the ground making a rain shadow.  You could even place things outside before it rains so that you can make a design (like stencils).
  7. Make a shelter or den, either with sticks or leaves or with a tarp.
  8. Make a rain catcher.
  9. Make a rain water run; you could adapt Science Sparks color mixing wall.
  10. Try tasting raindrops by catching them on your tongue.
  11. Go looking for snails.
  12. Take your bath toys on an outdoor adventure, let those rubber ducks out on puddles!
  13. Make a natural umbrella with the biggest leaf you can find.
  14. Make mud pies, mud castles, and mud sculptures.
  15. Measure how deep puddles are (you will need a large ruler for this).

How can I offer more outside play this summer?

Summer camp is a great option for those parents who want their child to spend more time outside this summer. We love this article on why camp is important. Virginia Chance School offers a unique weekly outdoor themed camp experience- Summer Under The Trees. Outdoor Camp can be a great way to keep the outdoors a big part of your child’s summer!



  1. National Wildlife Federation – Connecting Kids and Nature
  2. Children & Nature Network
  3. The Art of Simple – Let Your Kids Get Dirty
  4. Antidepressant Microbes In Soil: How Dirt Makes You Happy
  5. How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Helps Children Find Their Voices
  6. Vitamin N – 500 Ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of Your Family & Community