After a winter of indoor togetherness, Spring and Summer beg for outdoor exploration. There is nothing quite like an outdoor adventure for the entire family. Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, America's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization, says, "Instead of exploring the world, kids are chaperoned from school to soccer field to music lessons and home again; they never have a chance to find the hole behind the log where they can hide their special stuff, or the damp spot in the meadow where the butterflies swarm in the summer. There probably isn't a log or meadow within walking distance anyway." Mr. Pope goes on to express that playing outside, is "The Forgotten Family Value."
How many kids today get to meander through the woods, dig with sticks, chase birds or squirrels, dig up worms, collect leaves, or explore with only their imaginations? Our fast paced urban society has eliminated the opportunities for the majority of American children to engage in such activities. Parents, however, can intervene and provide these outlets; lungs full of fresh air, faces kissed with sunshine, physical exertion and exhaustion, grass stains, dirt between fingers, firefly chases, duck feeding, fishing, digging for buried treasure, watching clouds, making forts, tuning in to hear birds sing, crickets chirp, frogs croak, and wind blown hair. These are some experiences families should engage in regularly. There is no substitute for playing outdoors together, where imaginations can soar and exploration can stimulate and sharpen minds.
Time for a Blast to the Past
Most parents experienced these freedoms in nature as children. Statistics show that children age 3 to 12 spend on average 30 minutes per week playing outdoors. The National Wildlife Federation's education department recommends that kids get one "green hour" -- unstructured play in a green outdoor space -- each day. There is an obvious disparity in the desired time to benefit children and the actual time children experience. The NWF recommends starting with five or ten minutes if outdoor time is new to families and building up to the goal of one hour per day. For more information, go to their website at www.greenhour.org where families can find weekly tips and suggestions from parents and pros for getting parents and kids excited about nature. (http://familyfun.go.com/playtime/get-outside-706441/3/c accessed Feb. 2011)
"In wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia." - Charles A. Lindbergh
A myriad of studies and authors enumerate the benefits of outdoor play to children. Benefits are both physical and emotional. "When kids play outside, they are more physically active and vigorous in their movements," says Nancy Wells, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist at Cornell University. "Children are likely to burn more calories," notes Rae Pica, author of A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity, and Free Time Create a Successful Child. Additionally, says Pica, "Outside light triggers the synthesis of vitamin D and stimulates the pineal gland, the part of the brain that helps regulate the biological clock and is vital to the immune system." The psychological benefits may be even more significant. In a series of recent studies, Andrea Faber Taylor and Frances E. Kuo of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that contact with nature improved attention spans and self-control in kids, including those diagnosed with ADHD. Spending time outside may also boost your child's academic performance. "In schools that have outdoor classrooms or focus on outdoor education, testing improves across the board," says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv says, "Kids who spend time in nature also tend to play more creatively and handle stress more effectively." Frances Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illimois and a mom observes, "It appears that nature fosters a kind of gentle absorption -- almost a meditative quality -- that seems to be deeply rejuvenating." (http://familyfun.go.com/playtime/get-outside-706441/3/, accessed Feb. 2011)
The Vitamin D Dilemma
In addition, according to an August 2009 CNN.com report, 70 percent of American children are vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D is important for the body to absorb calcium, and also to control the rennin and protein associated with blood pressure levels. It is almost impossible to get enough vitamin D from foods alone, but when children spend modest amounts of time in the sunshine, it helps their bodies make the vitamin D they need to develop healthy bones and reduces their future risks of conditions, such as: heart disease and high blood pressure." (http://www.suite101.com/content/benefits-of-outdoor-play-for-children-a183901, accessed Feb. 2011) Outdoor play also enhances the overall health of children by building small and large muscles, strengthening bones, and conditioning the lungs. Running, jumping, climbing, bike riding, yelling, and blowing off steam can also lead to better sleep and improved behavior.
Social Benefits of Outdoor Play
Outdoor play has social benefits, as well. Children can practice and hone the skills of imaginative play, problem solving, cooperation, flexibility, and self-awareness. The outdoors is the virtual "Mecca of Sensory Learning" which is the "most powerful form of learning in young children," according to Sheila Milnes, at the Penn State, Better Kid Care Program. (http://betterkidcare.psu.edu/Angelunits/oneHour/OutdoorPlay/OutdoorPlayLessonA.html#Top, accessed Feb. 2011) Nature teaches children through all the senses; sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell which increases memory.
"Great things are done when men and mountains meet. This is not done by jostling in the street." ~William Blake
The benefits of outdoor play do not eliminate tightly packed family calendars, so how can parent find time to spend with their family outdoors? Laura Ramirez award-winning author on parenting, in her article, Giving Your Children the Gift of Time emphasizes, "The solution to this is simple: make a decision that family matters. Once you have made family your priority, it is fairly easy to weed out the activities that take up too much time. Create parenting plans that serve the interests of the entire family. As parents, we have to make hard choices. This means saying "no" more often to the people and activities that are not central to our lives. As always, it is a balancing act but the more we choose, the clearer our priorities become. In our fast-paced society, we often forget that relationships take care and time." (http://www.parenting-child-development.com/parenting-tips.html, accessed Feb. 2011) Parents...do not forget to turn cell phones/pagers off and leave electronic/tech devises at home when having family together time. Parents need to fully engaged for effective togetherness with their children...and as our children become teens we want them to realize the importance of leaving the "tech world" for periods of time.
The natural thing is to continue on the same old path but now is the time to take that "path less traveled." Choose the "nature" thing and get out of the house together. Venture into the wild, seek new exploration, and let nature become a part of family togetherness. Reinstitute this forgotten family value.