Skipping stones. Climbing trees. Lying in the grass and looking for patterns in the clouds. They're among the most iconic images of growing up. Unfortunately, they no longer represent the way most children spend their weekends.
During the past several decades, childhood has largely moved indoors. Instead of building tree forts and chasing butterflies, kids today are far more likely to spend their downtime in front of a screen. According to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, kids use electronics for nearly eight hours a day. Compare that figure with a University of Michigan study, which found that kids are engaged in unstructured outdoor play for less than 30 minutes per week.
That represents a genuine loss for our kids. Humans evolved in the outside world, and we have an inborn affinity for it. "Without fostering a deep connection to nature, we can't truly flourish as individuals or as a species," observes Peter Kahn, Jr., Ph.D., director of the Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems Lab at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
Being outdoors can help energize and inspire us. A University of Illinois study, for instance, showed that children with ADHD had noticeably milder symptoms when they played regularly in "green" settings. Researchers speculate that kids with the disorder tend to pay attention more acutely in a natural environment -- taking in the myriad sights and sounds freely and easily -- than in a classroom.
Indeed, all kids can benefit from being outdoors. "There's a limitless playground outside, and it doesn't come with an instruction booklet, so kids have to use their imagination," notes Meri-Margaret Deoudes, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. They also need to use their hands, which may explain in part why a recent scientific thesis done at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, in Blacksburg, found that spending time in the outdoors enhances young kids' motor skills, social development, attention, and activity level. Exploring also helps them make sense of the world. "Being outdoors tends to enrich children's perceptual abilities and to boost their confidence," says Neal Halfon, M.D., professor of pediatrics and child health policy at UCLA and advisor to the Too Small to Fail campaign, which aims to raise national awareness about the state of America's kids.
Getting your child outdoors might even empower her in the classroom. Researchers at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan, discovered that preschoolers who participated in weekly nature lessons for six months did better on tests of early literacy than kids who didn't take the lessons.
Spending time in nature with your child may also benefit her health (and yours). Research on adults from Japan's Chiba University showed that the simple act of walking through a forest can significantly reduce a person's blood pressure, pulse, heart rate, and production of the stress hormone cortisol, while improving mood and lowering anxiety. Doctors in Portland, Oregon, have even started prescribing that stressed-out families get outdoors in order to improve their emotional well-being.
It's surprisingly easy to ignite your child's inherent enthusiasm for the outdoors, even if you live in an urban environment. "Nature is everywhere," says Deoudes. "You don't have to travel far and wide to find it. Just open the door." We rounded up great ideas to inspire your child to tap into nature.
Take your to-do list outside. If you don't have time for a daily hike with your kids, move your regular routine outside as often as possible. Have playdates at the park. Read aloud to your kids on the porch. Enjoy a picnic lunch in the backyard. Even taking out the trash can turn into a nature excursion, as Becky Morales, of Houston, has discovered. "We have a worm bin, and my four kids love feeding scraps to them," she says. Vermicomposting has taught them about the circle of life and made them more aware of environmental protection and sustainability.
Cultivate a sense of wonder. Nature is full of mysteries to solve, and parents and children can unravel them together: What's that beautiful yellow bird? Where did this amazing seedpod come from? Who left those footprints? It also offers surprising treasures, from glittering branches encased in ice after a winter storm to a tiny speckled robin's egg left behind by a hatchling. "The trick to getting kids connected to the outdoors is piquing their curiosity," says Elaine Wilkes, Ph.D., author of Nature's Secret Messages.
The Hamel-Hodum family, from Tacoma, Washington, accomplished that by hanging a hummingbird feeder so their daughter, Alexandra, 3, could watch the tiny hovering creatures through the window. Rebecca P. Cohen, author of 15 Minutes Outside, used a similar approach with her two young kids, planting milkweed in her garden to help attract egg-laying monarch butterflies. "Nothing is more awe-inspiring than seeing a caterpillar form its own chrysalis and then transform into a butterfly at the beginning of the school year," she says.