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Time outside has numerous benefits for children

June 30, 2010
By Joe Hackett, News Outdoors Columnist

The Fourth of July weekend has long been considered the official launch of the summer season. School is out and kids are free to play. It is common knowledge that the time spent outdoors has many positive benefits for children.

    Parents have known this for years. In fact, I was regularly reminded of it as a youngster, when my mother would admonish us to “turn off the boob-tube and go outside and play.”

    Generally, as kids, we needed very little encouragement in this regard, unless Superman or Gunsmoke was airing. Remember, if you missed an episode back in those days, you really missed it. There was no videotaping or TiVo, so you couldn’t play it again, Sam.

    As much as we hate to admit it, Mom was right. Recent research confirms that children who regularly spend time outdoors are happier, healthier and smarter.

    It has been proven that nature is important to childhood development in every major way: intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually and physically.

    Unfortunately, in recent years, lifestyle trends have changed. The great outdoors is no longer viewed as so great. Such adjectives are now more commonly reserved for the latest video games, Wii applications or virtual reality computer simulations.

    However, the process of children’s alienation from natural settings did not happen all at once. It has been a gradual removal that occurred in a series of small increments, amplified by an overzealous and pervasive media intent on sensationalizing child abductions, Amber Alerts and the omnipresent pedophile lingering in the backyard bushes.

    The media has convinced parents that child abductors are everywhere. Cell phone companies are the actual beneficiaries, as kids as young as 4 years old must now carry the devices to provide parents with peace of mind.

    But recent research reveals that it isn’t Chester the Molester that’s causing the most harm to our kids. Rather, it is the pervasive over-protectiveness of parents that refuse to allow their kids to roam from home.

    By 1990, a child’s roaming radius, the distance they are permitted to safely range from home alone, had shrunk to one-ninth of what it had been in 1970. A marked decrease in bicycle sales and use has been considered an unfortunate side effect of this diminished roaming radius, although researchers remain unsure which came first.

    The fact is, over the past 20 years, children have experienced increasingly limited access to nature due to fears of stranger danger, the proliferation of electronic entertainment, a fear of lawsuits and the steadily decreasing availability of green space.

    It has become rather difficult to raise an all-natural child. Children are simply not getting outside. They are not fishing, building forts in the woods, catching frogs or turning over logs for salamanders. In short, children are living deprived childhoods that can result in a serious disconnect from the real world of the birds, the bees and the trees.

    These lifestyle changes have had a powerful, pervasive and increasingly detrimental effect on childhood. Afflictions such as obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder, impaired social skills and even what some have labeled as the “culture of depression” have severely affected our youth.

    Children who grow up primarily indoors are deprived from developing a full connection to nature.  Tethered by technology and overstructured schedules, many of today’s children are missing out on the opportunity to be active participants in the world as a whole. In many cases, a lack of direct experience in the outdoors has resulted in children connecting nature with fear and disaster, rather than with discovery, joy and wonder.

    Technology isn’t the sole source of all evils. It simply amplifies the situation by offering what many parents believe to be an easy, safe and readily available alternative. Children are experiencing the negative affects of parental overprotectiveness. The affects are the antithesis of the aims. Our kids are no longer as healthy, physically or psychologically, as their parents were at a comparable age.

    In fact, researchers predict that the current generation of Americans will be the first generation since the Civil War to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

The antidote

    Research has proven that children are smarter, more cooperative, happier and healthier when they have frequent and varied opportunities for free and unstructured play in the outdoors.

    There is a strong body of evidence linking improved health with physical activity. In addition, there is evidence suggesting that nature specifically can improve attention and other psychological aspects of health.

    Playing outdoors has a positive impact on children’s health and well being. Children who have the opportunity to regularly go outside in a natural environment learn how to protect both their health and the health of the environment.

    Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, explained, “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.”

    The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that pediatricians promote free, unstructured play and discourage excessive passive entertainment such as TV, Internet and video games. AAP also recommends that children be physically active at least 60 minutes per day and spend at least 30 minutes per day outdoors in nearby parks, playgrounds or open spaces.

    The Center for Disease Control also encourages children to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week, preferably daily in healthy outdoor activities in nature and parks.

    The Surgeon General’s 2010 report, “Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation” advises children to be physically active at least one hour a day through age-appropriate, enjoyable activities such as hiking, bicycling, climbing trees or going to the park.

    These guidelines can improve children’s cardiorespiratory fitness, cardiovascular and metabolic health, bone health and body composition. The report recommends family-based physical activities and that children have scheduled time to play outside.

Get down and dirty

    I never thought I’d live to see the day when it was good to get dirty. I was always scolded for coming home with grass-stained jeans, dirty hands and pine pitch in my hair.

    However, parents shouldn’t be alarmed if their kids go outside and get their hands dirty. In fact, it’s now considered healthy. New research reveals that a bacterium in the soil not only lowers depression and anxiety but also can make kids smarter.

    Science Daily reports that “exposure to specific bacteria in the environment, already believed to have antidepressant qualities, could increase learning behavior.”

    Presented at the 110th general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, the new research reveals that  “Mycobacterium vaccae is a natural soil bacterium which people likely ingest or breathe in when they spend time in nature,” explained Dorothy Matthews, a researcher with Sage College in Troy.

    “This research suggests that M. vaccae may play a role in anxiety and learning in mammals,” says Matthews. “It is interesting to speculate that creating learning environments in schools that include time in the outdoors where M. vaccae is present may decrease anxiety and improve the ability to learn new tasks.”

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Hackett
Saratoga Springs residents Matt McCabe and his boys scramble over the roots and rocks along the trail to St. Regis Mountain.



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