Ian Norwood, 10, of Brooks, left, and Levi Lowe, 10, of Searsport, climbed Blue Hill Mountain this fall with Maggie Goscinski's Saturday afternoon outdoors group The midcoast woman runs the group to help kids learn how to play outdoors. Credit: Courtesy of Maggie Goscinski

On rainy, snowy or cold Saturdays, it can be very tempting to curl up on the couch with a book or with a favorite TV show to watch. But that’s not where you’ll find Maggie Goscinski and the band of hardy children who participate in her weekly outdoors group.

No matter what the weather, they spend Saturday afternoons heading to Sears Island, the Belfast City Park or other nearby locales, and they don’t have a big agenda to follow.

What they do is play, ideally with minimal adult guidance and direction, and definitely with no screens or devices in sight.

That’s the way they all like it.

“I try to interfere as little as possible,” Goscinski, 24, of Brooks, said. “I find that if I give the kids an opportunity to whine and be bored for five minutes, they will very quickly find something to do. Generally, if they’re not hurting themselves or each other, we can kind of go with the flow.”

For people of a certain age, who have fond memories of spending huge blocks of unscheduled, unsupervised time on weekends or in summers roaming around on bikes with friends, making forts or exploring backyard woods, it may seem strange that this activity is noteworthy. And yet, it is.

In the last generation or so, the way that American children spend their time has undergone a drastic change. According to the National Recreation and Park Association, kids today spend less than 10 minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play but an average of seven and a half hours a day in front of electronic devices. Even Maine kids who live close to nature  often spend very little time outside.

There are lots of reasons why kids don’t play outside as much as they used to. Their schedules can be packed with organized sports and clubs. Their parents may be worried about letting them roam around outdoors without supervision. Recently, the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant school cancellations have also had a role in kids spending more time indoors looking at screens.

When school is in session, modern recesses might be shorter than their parents enjoyed as schools focus on test scores and core curriculum.

Two young participants of Maggie Goscinski’s Saturday afternoon outdoors group, shown here on an outing to Moose Point State Park in Searsport. Credit: Courtesy of Maggie Goscinski

Regardless of the reasons, though, Goscinski doesn’t like the trend away from playing outside and wants to do what she can to reverse it. When she was growing up in New York, her Maine-born mom made sure she spent plenty of time outside.

“My mom was inclined to kick us out of the house in the most loving way possible and get us outside,” she said.

A few years ago, when Goscinski became the stepmom to a now 10-year-old boy, she realized that the lifestyle she had enjoyed growing up was no longer a given, even for Maine kids.

“I would take him to the playground every day after school and was stunned by how few kids were there,” Goscinski said. “That kind of jogged me into action. ‘Oh my gosh! Where are all the kids who are supposed to be playing here?’”

She decided to do something about it. Before the pandemic began, she started her outdoors group for kids who are 8 to 11. She keeps it small enough so it will be manageable — right now there are between six and 10 kids who come every week — and charges $15 per person for the three-hour group. It’s so popular she now has a waiting list.

“For $15, I can wear out your kids for an afternoon,” Goscinski said. “It’s a lot of fun. I think adults have this misconception that if you let kids direct their own play, they’ll start attacking each other, or run around and start fires. But they don’t. Most of the time, children are just good people. Kids are small humans who also want to have a relaxing afternoon.”

The kids who come are a mix of homeschool and public school kids, and have developed a firm bond through all those hours of free-form Capture the Flag, tree climbing, sledding, hikes and other unstructured adventures.

“All of the kids in the group are really, really close,” Goscinski said. “They go through things together. They go through challenges, they argue, they negotiate rules together.”

One of the die-hard group participants is Mason Dimond, 10, of Searsport.

“It’s really fun and you can meet a lot of people,” he said. “I like to hang out with my friends and take hikes. In the summer, we usually swim. I usually talk with my friend Ian, and we usually go up ahead on the hikes and get to talk about Legos and that stuff.”

The Saturday group is something that Mason never wants to miss, according to his mom, Libby Dimond, who said her family often arranges weekend plans around it.

“It’s really important to him,” she said. “It’s developing these friendships outside of school. It’s that outdoor atmosphere … and it’s really nice, particularly in the winter, to make sure that the outdoor time is happening for these young people.”

She has noticed Mason’s confidence, especially in the outdoors, grow.

“When we go for hikes as a family, he wants to lead the way,” Dimond said.

Goscinski knows that some adults would find her methods unorthodox, or even a little alarming.

“It can be upsetting to see kids climbing a tree, if you believe that’s a dangerous thing to do, or if you’ve told your kid that that’s a dangerous thing to do,” she said. “But kids are less likely to hurt themselves when they have practice. Kids who have never climbed a tree in their life, it’s going to be more dangerous for them.”

 

So that’s what she wants to do — to give kids the chance to play, to push their boundaries a little, to challenge themselves.

“Kids today are extremely moderated. In a lot of ways, that’s really good. I want kids to be safe. I want them to be with adults who are trustworthy,” she said. “But on the other hand, if they don’t ever fall down, they’re never going to be able to learn to balance, or overcome that challenge.”

It’s all part of what she had as a child, and what she wants all kids to have.

“It seems like a right to play outside,” Goscinski said.