It's Spring: Get Outdoors!
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It's officially Spring. The birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, the air is warm and fresh, and the flower bulbs you planted last fall are beginning to poke through the ground. And the kids are – where?
In too many cases they are inside, glued to a TV or computer screen. In today's technologically-charged society, many kids who can recite entire scripts from their favorite shows are unlikely to know that pine cones come from pine trees. In fact, according to the Sierra Club, children today spend less time playing outdoors than any previous generation. Why is this? Well, part of it is that children's "free time" – which used to be spent in unstructured play activity - has declined a whopping 9 hours per week over the past 25 years.
And numbers show that the unstructured play activity that they do have is spent indoors. Consider this: almost 50% of four-to-six year olds have TVs in their bedrooms, and kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 6.5 hours per day with electronic media. Alan Gass, MD, an Advisory Board member for Healthcorps (www.hcstaging.com), an organization which works to educate kids in forming healthy habits, notes, "Now, everything's electronic; there's a pull in the other direction. There's really no value in the chatting, being on the internet, watching TV - there's really zero value in that."
At a time when child obesity rates are rising quickly, and with it associated problems like diabetes, heart disease and others, there's more reason than ever to turn off the TV, embrace the warm weather and get the kids outside to play.
The benefits of outdoor play are many. Besides the physical benefit of better health and fitness, experts cite behavioral and even academic benefits derived when kids spend a healthy dose of time outside having fun. Michael Casaus, the New Mexico Youth Representative for Sierra Club's "Building Bridges to the Outdoors'" program, says "We can cite studies that have been done that show that kids who go through outdoor education programs improve science scores by 27 percent. Grade point averages go up, kids behave better in the classroom - there are real tangible benefits." In contrast, the medical journal Pediatrics has linked a child's "screen time" with increased rates of obesity as well as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), while contact with the natural world has been shown to reduce both problems.
How can parents encourage reluctant kids to get outside? Here are a few ideas:
- Go with them. Parents who set an example for their kids of enjoying the outdoors just might find that their kids love it, too. Casaus says, "We really encourage parents to take their kids into the outdoors. That's an excellent way to ensure that they're getting those outdoor experiences." And Gass adds, "If the kid's not going to be motivated, the responsibility falls on the parent to create a scenario that would allow them to be outside." Basically, if kids don't know what to do with themselves outside at first, parents should go outside too - and walk to the park, play ball, get to a playground, pick flowers, or go for a bike ride – together.
- Plan daily "Green Time." This is a time when the kids know you expect them to be outside playing. For example, "You can watch TV for one hour and then you're going outside until lunch." If time is allocated daily for outside play, all you have to do is follow the "routine."
- Take advantage of outdoor programs. Casaus adds, "We do recognize as well that parents are extremely busy, and as part of that we really encourage families to research and get their kids in outdoor education programs." Every state has them – summer camps, organized sports like T-ball, baseball and soccer, swim lessons, nature exploration programs and much more. The YMCA and local community education programs also often offer children's outdoors programs during the spring and summer.