Do you remember how you spent your free time as a kid? Were you outside a lot? Did your mom say, "Just be home before it gets dark." Then you were off to who knows where to run and play like wildlife, free as the wind?
Now compare those memories to your own kids. Computers, video games, texting, homework are just a few reasons kids stay indoors. Time spent outdoors tends to be on a soccer field or waiting for a ride.
This is not to simply criticize; my kids have the same issues. Perhaps exaggerated, but nevertheless real fears about leaving children unsupervised are common among all parents. This is normal life in our modern world.
One survey asked kids where they like to spend their free time, and this was the response, "I like it indoors best, that's where the electricity is."
He was honest, and hardly alone. Author Richard Louv calls this, "Nature Deficit Disorder," in a book called Last Child In The Woods. Of course there is actually no such disease, and certainly no pill for it as well. There are, however, consequences related to this "disease." Childhood obesity is up and science scores are down.
Studies show that kids who spend time outdoors are more psychologically healthy, mentally alert and physically fit. A few studies have documented a rise in test scores after students spent time doing research outdoors in environmental topics. Others have shown that kids who are indoors more tend to be overweight (big surprise), and have a higher incidence of psychological problems.
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Howard Gardner, of Multiple Intelligences fame, has described how there are different approaches to learning. Some are spatial, linguistic, mathematical, kinetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.
Added to the original seven are existential and naturalistic. The nature learners appreciate self-directed time outdoors and utilize a sort of file cabinet mindset that identifies plants, animals and their value.
Therefore, a movement has arisen in response, called No Child Left Inside. Experts have testified to Congress. Officials have passed resolutions, and shepherded national and state bills through the halls of government. Websites, books, organizations, coalitions and operations are out there. Now, what can you do?
You can head outdoors—teach your child about the environment and healthy living. Here are 10 ideas to get your children outside.
- Rethink your own attitude about being outdoors. Feel the rain on your face. Eat in the back yard. Check out that bug before you step on it. Comment on the sunset. Avoid sarcasm when you recycle, conserve energy and talk about going green. These actions will rub off on your kids.
- Take a walk around your neighborhood. Spend some quality time listening, talking and sharing with your kids, to make these special days. Look for birds, pretty views, native plants and relationships in nature.
- Consider outdoor skills to be part of your child's healthy upbringing. Learn to paddle a canoe, take a hike, go stargazing or use binoculars to see a bird. Listen to the sounds of the night, use a compass and a GPS.
- Learn your local natural world with your kids. Discover where the creeks, wild areas and parks are in your neighborhood. Identify a few common local trees, birds, butterflies and critters. Observe natural processes like erosion, why some plants and animals live and die, how living things interact with their environment and weather patterns. Apply this learning to real-world classroom concepts.
- Don't over-program. Kids benefit from unstructured outdoor time, where they create their own activities and freely explore their surroundings. Let them make up games, find special outdoor places and start up projects. I remember some great organized football games from my childhood, but I also remember playing in the woods, damming up creeks and having rock-skipping contests.
- Pick up litter. Clean up in your front yard, in a vacant lot or at school. It makes the place look better, it's free, good exercise and shows you care about the environment.
- Make a vacation in natural places. Go see the mountains, beaches, plains, deserts, wetlands, badlands and forests. Try fishing, hiking, rafting, rock climbing, zip-lining, glacier walking, snorkeling, meteor crater checking, climbing into the rain forest canopy, or caving. Visit nature centers and museums. Many of these places have fine hotels, restaurants and fabulous activities.
- Talk about life and nature. Does milk just come from the grocery store? Where does trash go? Is your house energy efficient? What are local environmental issues and current events? What produce and livestock are grown nearby? Discuss these topics with your kids to help them appreciate the environment more.
- Scouts, camp and field trips. These are organizations that get kids outside. Scouts go hiking, camping, and earn badges that teach outdoor knowledge and skills. Not to mention making friends and building character. Generally, parents can be as involved as they want. There are other organizations to consider, too, such as Audubon, Camp Fire, FFA, 4H, school clubs and more. Choose a good summer camp, at www.acacamps.org. Not only should you consider the quality of supervision and safety, but also the emphasis of outdoor activities.
- Visit www.childrenandnature.org. This web site was established with profits from Last Child In The Woods, by Richard Louv, to serve as a resource for parents and community leaders. There are ideas for activities geared for all ages, families, scouts, and school groups.
Nobody intentionally gives their kid "Nature Deficit Disorder." The benefits of spending more time outside are intuitive and scientifically studied too. What a simple way to encourage kids to maintain their weight and to play outdoors more.
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Dallas Environmental Education Examiner Jim Parry has been helping kids enjoy playing and learning outdoors and boosting science understanding for more than 30 years.
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