Get Kids Off the Couch and Outdoors
Melissa Rayworth and Jennifer Forker
The Associated Press
May 16, 2010
Lots of advice for modern parents provokes debate. But ask whether today's children spend as much time playing outdoors and exploring nature as previous generations did, and you'll find little disagreement: They don't.
Across the nation, worried parents tell stories of neighborhoods where children are neither seen nor heard.
"I speak all over the country and it's a concern that comes up all over," says Harvard psychology professor Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "There is a growing movement of parents who are concerned and are trying to figure out how to get their kids outside."
Rosemarie Truglio, a Sesame Workshop vice president who has butted heads with Linn on the subject of marketing licensed characters, agrees with her fully on this topic. Episodes of this year's "Sesame Street" will focus on nature, she says, because preschoolers' lack of connection with it has gotten to be of critical concern.
"Children have that sense of awe and wonder," Truglio says. "We need to have parents encourage them to be outside and to engage in activities so that they are using their senses."
But even parents who love the outdoors say it's difficult.
Kristin Eno, founder and director of Little Creatures Films, produces videos about children interacting with nature. "My work is all about nature," she says, "and there are days when I might be here with my 14-month-old and have no time for going outside."
"But every time I do go out with her, I'm glad I did," she says. "You see this peace when she's outside."
Richard Louv's popular call-to-arms, "Last Child in the Woods," has made an impact since it was published in 2005 (a second edition was released in 2008). Many organizations, including Louv's own Children and Nature Network, offer parents tools and encouragement for building more outdoor time into their children's lives.
Why is it so hard, and what can be done? Some approaches:
- What if both parents are at work, so no one is home to supervise young kids outside? Team up with other parents in the neighborhood to share supervision. Hire a baby sitter specifically for a few hours of outdoor play. Choose day care or a preschool that makes outdoor time a priority. Skip the gym in favor of an hour-long walk with your kids, or try to work outdoors on your laptop while the kids play in a safe area. "Some families," Linn says, "are getting together to have afterwork picnics outside."
- What about concerns for a child being abducted, injured or lost? Research crime statistics in your neighborhood. Is it really less safe than a decade ago? If so, can you make your own outdoor space any safer? Louv says equipping kids with cell phones can help assuage worries about safety.
- What about time for enrichment classes and indoor sports? If the balance seems off, reassess. An hour outdoors can be as enriching — perhaps more enriching — than an hour of instruction indoors.
- What if kids are focused on screen media and electronic toys indoors? Reverse that trend at your home by decreeing that every hour of screen time be balanced by at least an hour outdoors. Then stick to it. With teens, trying tying outdoor time to allowances.
- What if kids they don't know what to do outside? Take a walk after the rain, Truglio says, and point out how precipitation changes the environment. Teach them how things grow (preschoolers may not realize plants and trees are alive) and offer open-ended tools (a ball, a magnifying glass) to encourage creative outdoor play.
- What about teens who resist being outdoors? You need to get out there with them and show how it's done.
"Parents have an incredible, powerful ability to model behavior," says Daniel Kirschenbaum, a professor at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and clinical director of Wellspring, which provides treatment services for overweight youths and adults at several U.S. locations. "You are your own best ally."
Todd Christopher, author of "The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids" (Trumpeter Books, 2010), notes that teenagers often use more than one form of media at a time, so making media part of an interaction with nature can help get teens' attention. He cites treasure hunts as an example — either devised by neighborhood parents, or by geo-caching and letterboxing. In letterboxing, teens download clues off Internet sites. Geo-caching is a higher-tech form of hide and seek, requiring a Global Positioning System (GPS) into which teens can punch the coordinates of hidden treasure.
Both activities are "a pretense to get outside and have these adventures," says Christopher.
Sasha Huffman, 15, of Arvada, Colo., enjoys being with friends outdoors, either biking, walking or sledding.
"When the weather is nice, I (walk) all the time with my friends," she says. "I'd rather talk to them face to face than text them."
Going outdoors with her family isn't so bad, either. In the summer, they spend a lot of time hiking in the nearby mountains.
"I think you gotta kinda try it at first, even if it doesn't sound fun," she says. "At least for me, you enjoy it as time goes by. Then you think, 'Wait, I don't want it to be over.'"
When her adult children were teenagers, Evelyn Sacks, co-author of "Eat, Nap, Play" (Health Communications, 2009) says she often took them hiking, but once at the trailhead she'd hand over the map. "You can put kids pretty darn young in charge," she says. "They have a great sense of direction.
"I just told them 'I'm bringing lunch. You guys take this hiking map and let's go.' At a young age, you empower them."
Use family time outdoors toward building a teenager's talents or hobby interests, advises her co-author, Robin Spitzman. Collect beach glass. If your teen is keen on photography, take a camera and build an album together, she suggests.
Doing anything outdoors has benefits beyond health and wellness. "Families doing this together, really, what you're truly doing is creating these bonds," says Christopher.