By RJ Thompson
Let’s start with a simple question: Why do you care about the environment? Better yet, when did you begin to care about the environment? For many of us, the seeds of environmentalism were planted at a young age when the days were long and responsibility meant being home before the sun’s long shadows gave way to moonlight. Without knowing it, we began to appreciate the great outdoors through nights of flashlight tag, backyard campouts, summer rec leagues, sandlot football, school field trips, and myriad other nostalgia-inducing memories. And that love of playing outside also allowed us to develop strong bodies, problem-solving and social skills, and to burn off all that extra energy—we were fit, smart, creative, and calm kids.
But that was then. Children today are struggling to find their connection with nature. According to a recent survey conducted by the YMCA, 58 per cent of children between the ages of five and ten go outside to play fewer than four days a week because “parents find it more convenient to spend time in front of a television or computer.” The National Wildlife Federation states that American children average less than 30 minutes of unstructured outdoor play a day, yet spend upwards of seven hours in front of a screen each day. Sadly, a 2012 study conducted by the Institute of Medicine reported only two per cent of high schools provide daily phys-ed courses, while elementary and middle schools provide only four and eight per cent, respectively. This is disturbing, depressing, and, quite frankly, appalling. How busy and preoccupied have our lives become when it is “more convenient” to plop our children in front of a screen instead of taking them to the nearest park to play with his or her pals? Do we not care about the well-being of our children? Are we aware of the harm associated with physical inactivity?
Obviously, playing outside is a physical activity that promotes healthy bones and muscles and reduces childhood obesity. As explained by Kathleen Alfano Ph. D., Director of Child Research at Fisher-Price, a child’s whole body is used to explore movement and environment when playing outdoors. Fine motor skills develop, spatial learning occurs, and the world is literally seen from a variety of perspectives. Alfano gives an example of how children even learn about cause and effect through the act of swinging. They begin to see their bodies as agents of movement.
Playing outside also benefits the mind, by improving academic achievements and creativity. According to The American Psychological Association, “Cornell University environmental psychologist Nancy M. Wells, Ph. D. found that children who experienced the biggest increase in green space near their home after moving improved their cognitive functioning more than those who moved to areas with fewer natural resources nearby.” And the National Wildlife Federation reminds us, “Whether for building a fort of twigs, creating a fairy forest, or pretending to be a super-hero, playing outside inspires and requires an active imagination.” This kind of cognitive strength doesn’t develop by playing video games.
The Center for Disease Control recommends children aged six to seventeen engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Much of the research points to outdoor play as a panacea for health conditions such as ADHD, depression, and anxiety. As well, research has shown that spontaneous, unstructured play is a way for children to develop positive social behavior.
How does this relate to the environment? Researchers have come to a common perspective, one that suggests time outside not only builds healthy bodies, minds, and imaginations, but is essential to human existence. The National Wildlife Federation explains, “Our kids are out of shape, tuned out and stressed out, because they’re missing something essential to their health and development: connection to the natural world.” In turn, children nurtured in nature will, many researchers suggest, take care of the planet. Beyond the health and cognitive benefits children may gain from free and unstructured play outdoors, nature also provides them with a sense of wonder and a deeper understanding of our responsibility to take care of the Earth, says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit-Disorder. Martha Erickson Ph. D., furthers this idea, “Learning about climate change just by studying it on the Internet or reading about it in books is one thing, but to come to know and love the natural world firsthand from an early age just gives you a different kind of motive” for environmental stewardship.
What to do to get kids outside? While agencies like The National Wildlife Federation are working to develop policies and programs that reconnect children with nature, parents and guardians must play a more active role in ensuring their children receive enough exercise. This means going outside with your kids. Not enough time? Poor excuse. The YMCA report found that more than half the parents surveyed admitted to playing video games with their children on a regular basis. Think safety is an excuse? Make it family time so that adults are there to monitor.
So, put down the iPad, log out of FaceBook, turn off the TV, and take your kids outside. You don’t have to race them around the block until your heart explodes. Perhaps start with a walk. Go find a tree. Climb it, carefully. Toss a frisbee. Learn to toss a Frisbee. Start a jump-roping competition. Play Kick the Can or King of the Hill. Maybe you’ll recall how many hops you could do in a minute when you were their age. Remember the games four-square and sidewalk tennis? Yeah you do, and you were a pro. Show off for your kids a bit… if nothing else, it’s make them laugh.
When we begin to introduce our children to the physical activities they so desperately need in their lives, the benefits will echo far beyond the sound of their laughter. “Outside” turns into a playground of adventure and exploration, exhaustion takes the place of sedentary hours in front of a screen and medication for ADHD, an appreciation for and responsibility toward the environment is formed, and you get to relive a piece of your childhood or, better yet, re-invent that of your own child.
All photographs and images are in the Public Domain.