Children today spend less time playing outdoors than their mothers and fathers did as children. A recent survey of 800 mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 12 found that 70 percent of mothers reported playing outdoors every day when they were young, compared with only 31 percent of their children. Fifty-six percent of the mothers reported that when they were children they remained outdoors for three hours at a time or longer, compared with only 22 percent of their children.
What has changed in American culture that keeps children and their parents indoors? In general, children ages 8 to 18 spend more time (44.5 hours per week) in front of computers, televisions and game screens than any other activity in their lives except sleeping, according to studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Nearly 85 percent of mothers, in a recent survey, identified their child’s television viewing and computer game playing as the number one reason why their children don’t go outside to play more often.
Outdoor play advocate Richard Louv, author of the book "Last Child in the Woods," has coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the lack of nature in the lives of children today. The phenomenon is associated with many troubling childhood trends, including obesity, attention disorders and depression.
Psychologists argue that truly healthy kids need unstructured time and natural places where they can interact with the world on their own. While adult-organized sports have a place in childhood, they do not represent the unstructured play that researchers recognize as critical to childhood development.
The importance of free play in the development of healthy children has been recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), as well. AAP states that the benefits include brain development, a more developed imagination, dexterity, emotional strength and physical strength.
Give your child the gift of nature by going outside to play today. All it takes is a commitment to turn off everything electronic and a little initiative to head outside to discover all that can be found there.
Here are some activities to get you started:
Create an outdoor fort or tree house.
Children of all ages love to have spaces to call their own. Forts, tree houses and playhouses can be as rustic or extravagant as can be imagined. For inspiration, check out "The Treehouse Book" by Peter Nelson and David Larkin.
Play in the mud.
Mud can be made anywhere - in the yard, in a small pool, or in a bucket on the porch. Just combine dirt and water, and most children will know what to do from there. For added fun, give your child utensils, pans, bowls and buckets to play with in the mud (find them cheaply at a local thrift store, if needed). If your child is hesitant to get dirty, set the example by digging in yourself.
Build a fairy house.
A little imagination and a few natural materials care all that is needed to build a fairy house or garden. Find an out-of-the-way place in the yard, woods or even a planter to build your fairy house. Then let your child’s imagination run wild as she searches for sticks, pine cones, leaves, seed pods, acorns, shells and rocks that can be turned into a fairy’s household items like tables, chairs and dishware. For inspiration, read the book "Fairy Houses" by Tracy Kane.
Fill a nature basket.
Find an old basket that can serve as a place to keep anything “beautiful” that is found outdoors: rocks, sticks, shells, fossils, pine cones, etc. However, be sure not to disturb anything growing or take anything that should remain outdoors (such as bird nests). Keep the nature basket in an accessible place for your child to empty and look through whenever he feels the urge. Find a special place in the woods or near water for returning items back to nature when you are finished with them.
Visit a nature center.
Nature centers offer a variety of ways to experience the outdoors, including fun and educational programs about a wide range of outdoor topics. In Chattanooga, visit the Chattanooga Arboretum & Nature Center, located at the base of Lookout Mountain, to hike, explore a tree house, canoe Lookout Creek, learn about native wildlife, and much more.
Build a campfire.
Campfires represent everything wonderful about being outside – camping, friends and family, hotdogs and S’mores. If you can light a safe campfire in your backyard, invite the neighbors over to enjoy it with you. Outdoor Chattanooga is offering campfire fun at Greenway Farm in Hixson on Thursday evenings in October. Visit the Outdoor Chattanooga website for more information.
Rock-hop in a creek.
Childhood isn’t complete without a creek to hop around in once in awhile. Creeks are great for wading, water fights, crawdad-hunting, rock-hopping and exploring. Find a favorite spot and allow your child time to play and explore. However, be sure to check on a creek’s water quality through local municipalities and utilities before jumping in.
Learn about songbirds.
Place a bird feeder near a window or in the yard and watch who comes to visit. A great child-friendly bird identification guide is Peterson’s The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. The Chattanooga Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society is an active nonprofit organization that offers monthly programs and bird watching events. Visit the chapter's website for more information.
Start a nature journal.
Pack a journal and some colored pencils or crayons in a backpack to take along on walks, hikes and canoe trips. Encourage your child to draw what she sees while out in nature: trees, leaves, birds, pine cones, rocks – even you. Be sure to set aside 15 to 30 minutes to sit, draw and talk with your child about what she is drawing.
Have your child search for “special” rocks and then sit outside - armed with paint brushes and non-toxic paints - and create rock art. Painted rocks are artful additions to potted plants, gardens and windowsills.
Visit a state park.
East Tennessee alone is home to 18 state parks that offer a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities, from hiking and biking to camping and fishing. Visit the state parks website to learn more.
Read books outside.
Find a special place outdoors to read away from the distractions of home – under a tree, in a hammock, on a porch or at the park. Pack your backpack with books and snacks and head outside to read.
Paddle a canoe.
Canoeing is a fun way to explore local waterways, as well as to quietly observe the plants and animals that live around water. There are many family friendly canoeing opportunities in Chattanooga. Contact the Chattanooga Arboretum & Nature Center and Outdoor Chattanooga for information about family canoe programs and canoe rentals.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal enjoys writing about the natural world and the people who work to protect it. She is rarely found without her daughters and a pair of shoes appropriate for hiking and rock-hopping in creeks. Visit her blog at YourOutdoorFamily.com.
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