*Learn about the Anoka-Hennepin Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) outdoor spaces for classes and Playtimes at the end of this article.
How Nature Makes Kids Calmer, Healthier and Smarter.
In the midst of busy school schedules, sports, and other extra-curricular activities, it is often hard to fit in a trek to a park or natural area. Not to mention the lure of technology and other factors that all too often trump outdoor play as a part of a child's everyday routine.
A recent survey by The Nature Conservancy indicated that 50 percent of adults think “children not spending enough time outdoors in nature is an extremely or very serious problem.” Another 30 percent feel it is a “somewhat serious problem.” The good news is that beneficial outdoor time for your children is as close as your own backyard, patio or balcony!
“Something else was different when we were young: our parents were outdoors. I’m not saying they were joining health clubs and things of that sort, but they were out of the house, out on the porch, talking to neighbors. As far as physical fitness goes, today’s kids are the sorriest generation in the history of the United States. Their parents may be out jogging, but the kids just aren’t outside.” ― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.
Did you grow up as I did, building dams in the stream, climbing trees, and chasing fireflies as the evening darkened? If you did, you'll agree with me that all children deserve those experiences.
Nowadays, though, many of us don't have yards. Even if we do, when we try to send our kids outside, there's often no one to play with. And most parents worry that we have to stay outside with them to keep them safe -- but we have to make dinner!
So most kids spend most of their time inside. As a result, the average fifth grader, given a choice, prefers to stay inside, close to electrical sockets and all the entertainment sources they power.
But your grandmother was right: Kids need fresh air and exercise. We all do. Families who find ways to be outdoors together nurture not only their bodies, but their connection to all of life -- and to each other. Kids who spend time outside in nature, research shows, are:
- Calmer- This is particularly important for ADHD kids because it lowers their need for medication, but fresh air soothes the senses of all children.
- Happier- Studies show sunshine, fresh air and physical activity all encourage good moods and reduce tendencies toward depression.
- Healthier- Many kids who don't get enough time outdoors are Vitamin D deficient, affecting health and mood. Indoor air is also usually less healthy.
- Less likely to be overweight- Pediatricians recommend at least an hour of active physical play daily during childhood to protect against obesity and diabetes.
- Better vision - Kids who play outdoors more have better vision and less need for eyeglasses. Until recently, we thought that was simply because they stare at screens less. But it turns out that Vitamin D plays a role. And the latest research indicates that exposure to light is important for healthy eye function.
- Better students- Research shows that kids who play outdoors actually have longer attention spans, more frustration tolerance, and do better in school. Kids even do better on tests if they are allowed to play first. It's not just that it gets their wiggles out. It's all that oxygen to the brain.
- More creative- Outdoor play is often less structured than what kids do indoors with technology, so kids exercise their imaginations as well as their bodies.
The answer to our nature deprived modern lives? Set your life up so your child can be outdoors. We know that usually kids won't be able to be outdoors without parents. So parents need to get outside, too.
First, set up any outdoor space you have access to so that it's inviting, and spend time outside with your child. A sandbox, wading pool, swing, climbing structure or garden will keep your child entertained for hours. But if permanent structures aren't possible, think impermanent: A tablecloth teepee or a bucket of water with funnels and cups, or a shovel to dig a hole you can later refill.
Second, spend time as a family in nature -- hiking, playing tag, biking, simply walking together in a beautiful place. It allows your family to regroup and get back in sync. It makes wonderful memories. And it's a great workout for everyone.
This doesn't have to be a big production. If you're lucky enough to have your own yard, you have unlimited options, from kicking a ball around to camping out in a tent. But every city has public parks, and every family can find something to do outside that feels fun. Two important ground rules:
Turn off the cell phones. Yours. Theirs. REALLY. Enough said, I hope! The world will be waiting for you when you get back. This is quality time to focus on family. Soon enough, your child will want to be with friends, not with you. Enjoy this time to connect.
If you choose to engage in a sport, minimize the competition in favor of the fun. Make sure the rules are relaxed for little ones so everyone enjoys themselves.
If you're stuck for ideas, below are some suggestions from Anoka-Hennepin ECFE teacher at Sorterberg Early Childhood Center, Jessica Fabb. Jessica teaches classes in Sorteberg's outdoor classroom, which is full of natural possibilities for parents and children to explore together.
- Paint sidewalks, the house, rocks and trees with water! Give each child a cup or small bucket of water and a brush. Then, just let them go to town painting. It's cheap, easy, and fun. And it will entertain them for a long time.
- Bring some of your child's favorite toys outside: dinosaurs, blocks, vehicles, etc. Playing with them among the grass and plants brings a whole new element of fun to their play.
- Fill a plastic storage bin with water and different cups, small plastic containers, or pitchers. Even the smallest bin or bucket of water will keep my preschoolers and toddlers happy, splashing, stirring and pouring for hours. You can even add a few drops of food coloring to make the water your child's favorite color.
- Also with water, make "soup" with water and any nature items found in the yard...twigs, leaves, pinecones, etc. Mix and stir then pretend to have lunch.
- On a sunny day, use chalk to trace your child's shadow on the driveway. Make several tracings, and then see if your child can fit his shadow back inside the tracing.
- Chalk is also a great way to draw a road or racetrack on the driveway you can run, bike or scooter on. Make traffic signs to stop and go. A smaller track can also be used for toy cars and trucks.
- Go on a nature hunt with a magnifying glass. Have your child look closely at bugs and plants.
- Take it outdoors! Enjoy a snack and read stories on a blanket on the grass instead of indoors. If it's a book about nature or birds, take time to look around or listen to see if you have some of the same things in your area.
- Use outdoor pillows and a sheet or blanket to create a fort, a castle or a tent - creating a magical space that they will want to live forever. You don't have to be a child to enjoy a blanket fort!
- As the sun begins to go down, use flashlights or glow sticks to explore your yard.
- Have a carwash with trikes or scooters with soapy water and sponges.
- Visit one of the many nature centers in the metro area - many have free activities on weekends. (Wargo Nature Center, Springbrook Nature Center, Eastman Nature Center, or Coon Rapids Dam Visitor Center)
- Crate a nature scavenger hunt and have your child look for something that flies, something that crawls, something green, something soft, etc.
"Don't forget to ask open-ended questions, says Fabb." "For a young child, everything is new—even the tiniest things are interesting and exciting. Enjoy this time of exploration and wonder together. You may just be surprised with the enjoyment you both have while being in nature together."
*Anoka-Hennepin Schools Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) is fortunate to have two outdoor spaces for classes and Playtimes - Riverview Early Childhood Center and Sorteberg Early Childhood Center.
Riverview Early Childhood Center which is located in Brooklyn Park has a great outdoor playground as well as a greenhouse and garden area which families enjoy in a number of classes throughout the year. Sorteberg Early Childhood Center is located in Coon Rapids and has a beautiful outdoor classroom that is utilized year-round ECFE classes as well as Family Playtime sessions.Stay connected and receive timely and topical parent resource information. Like us on Facebook or sign up for emails with parent resource information.
A portion of this article is excerpted from ahaparenting.com.