Healthy Kids Play for a Healthy Planet

Why unstructured, outdoor play is critical to the health of today's children ... and their planet

“I want to add this to my collection, momma,” announces my 4-year-old son as he holds up a muddy stick that he’s found alongside a Colorado creek. His wanting smile fades quickly as I gently shake my head no and explain that while the stones and cones that make up the majority of his “collection” are allowed indoors, muddy sticks are not. He grumbles briefly until a taunting squirrel catches his attention and the muddy stick is forgotten.

Kids are natural collectors, but what they collect, however, depends. Today’s American kids are increasingly collecting computer games, iTunes and TV shows rather than plucking sticks and stones from their natural environments. Plainly, the high-tech, plugged-in lifestyle has caused kids to become increasingly sedentary and disconnected from nature. This “disconnect” has led to alarming rates of childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes and even depression, and it is depriving kids of the unstructured, outdoor play that inspires creativity and aids in social, emotional and cognitive development. This “disconnect” threatens their ability and desire to act as environmental stewards.
Nature for kid’s health
More and more children are also collecting chronic illnesses rather than enjoying good health, and poor diet and lack of physical activity have been named the culprits.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years. Obese youth are at increased risk for developing cardiovascular diseases, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. They’re also at greater risk for developing bone and joint problems, sleep disorders and social and psychological problems, such as stigmatization, poor self-esteem and depression.
The CDC also reports that diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases in children and adolescents, and that more than 150,000 people under the age of 20 suffer from the ailment. And those numbers are on the rise. Furthermore, research shows that an increasing number of children are developing not type 1 diabetes, but type 2, a disease that has historically been diagnosed primarily in adults ages 40 years or older.
To make matters scarier, a recent study just announced that this generation of children — our children — are the first in history who are expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
But, there is hope. A proper diet and regular physical activity have been proven to dramatically reduce a child’s risk of developing these dangerous diseases. Furthermore, ground-breaking studies from researchers and journalists like the Children and Nature Network’s (C&NN) chairman and author of Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, suggest that unstructured (or free) outdoor play may not only be beneficial to the physical health of children, but also to their mental, social, emotional and cognitive well-being.
Nature for the planet’s health
Our children are not the only ones suffering. The planet that gives us life and vitality is also at grave risk. America alone loses more than 3 million acres of open space every year; that’s 500 acres a day! 2010 is projected to be the hottest year in recorded history, species are disappearing at alarming rates, and water and air sources are becoming increasingly polluted.
And, a widespread childhood disconnect from nature could come with more grave costs to the planet.
“There’s the potential that we’ve done all this work — protecting this land — that the next generation might not want, that they might not care to see protected,” says Jena Meredith, director of the Go Zero Project for The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit organization committed to education and environmental conservation.
“And so we absolutely, I think, have to get children involved in nature very early from almost a moral perspective so that they know it,” continues Meredith. “Because if you know it, maybe you’ll grow to love it. And if you love it, then you’ll definitely try to protect it.”
Nature as a cure
“Nature is the first prescription,” say Meredith. She explains that there is a definite need to connect young people to nature, both for their health and the health of the planet.
Exploring the outdoors is not just a matter of physical health, but rather about total well-being, which entails social, emotional, mental and cognitive stability. The outdoor world offers children more than just a space to engage in physical activity. It offers them a space to explore, to problem-solve, to think creatively and to interact with others.
A 2006 study published in Pediatrics concluded that while playing outdoors, “a child is more likely to encounter opportunities for decision-making that stimulate problem-solving and creative thinking because outdoor spaces are often more varied and less structured than indoor spaces.”
The study also suggested that unstructured, outdoor play requires that children employ a higher level of skills that integrates attention and other cognitive functions, such as planning, organizing, sequencing and decision-making — skills that prepare children for adulthood.
Go outside and play
Meredith explains that getting kids outdoors to experience nature doesn't have to be challenging or expensive. It doesn't have to include a trip to Yellowstone or a weeklong camping trip. She suggests exploring a national wildlife refuge, parks, unclaimed open spaces — even your own backyard.

National wildlife refuges are one of America’s great untapped resources, explains Meredith. The U.S. houses more than 540 designated refuges, and there is one within at least 50 miles of every urban city.

“They’re extraordinary, inexpensive, beautiful places to see wildlife that you might not even know exist. They have extensively trained staff, and they’re a wonderful place to spend a day bike riding with the family, or hiking. Sometimes they provide nature driving tours.”
And, they’re inexpensive: Visit Fish and Wildlife Services for a list of national wildlife refuges and entrance fees. Most charge just $4 or $5 for the whole family.
Open spaces and parks are also great places to take children to explore, and these places are not exclusive to rural and suburban communities. Meredith explains that New York City alone has roughly 44,000 acres of unclaimed open space where kids can get outdoors and engage in unstructured play in the dirt. 
Backyards host some incredible natural treasures and kids can act as “Dr. Scientist” as they explore roly-polies, sift through dirt and discover the ecological design of their immediate environment.
Encourage kids to unplug and reconnect
Cheryl Charles, president and co-founder of C&NN, offers 10 tips for parents, caregivers and teachers to encourage today’s young people to swap their technological gadgets for unstructured, outdoor play.
1. Simply open up the door and go outside.
2. Make spending time with your children outdoors a priority. It doesn’t have to cost money, but it does require time. Invest in your children’s health.

3. Engage in age-appropriate outdoor activities.

  • For infants, Charles suggests taking daily walks and making sure that Baby can see. Allow your infant the vantage point to observe different shapes, patterns and colors. 
  • For toddlers, Charles suggests taking them to a natural setting where they can play with “loose parts,” like twigs and pebbles, where they can scratch shapes into the earth, dig and explore. Have them create a bucket of these loose parts or natural treasures (or in my 4-year-old’s case, his “collection”). Have them do bark rubbings or make learning their ABCs a game by helping them find natural objects that begin with each letter.
  • As children age, Charles suggests encouraging them to build forts and huts and to use their imaginations to create magical places.
  • Young teenagers tend to be attracted to outdoor play that is more active, but many steer clear of physical activities that might be deemed hard. For these kids, Charles suggests using the word “adventure” rather than “hike” to make it fun. Teenagers are also more project- and game-oriented. Try engaging them in a service project or organize a scavenger hunt.
4. Make outdoor play intergenerational by involving grandparents and elders in the community who are retired and have more time. Most will value the time spent with young people.
5. Organize a nature club and plan outings with friends, family members and neighbors. C&NN’s website offers a free, downloadable PDF called The Nature Clubs For Families Tool Kit, which offers parents, caregivers and teachers valuable tips, relevant information, and a wealth of fun and inexpensive suggestions for creating outdoor adventures.
6. Plant a food, butterfly or wildlife garden.
7. Incorporate more ecological diversity into your backyard, porch or balcony by planting flora that attracts different species of birds and butterflies. Take the time to learn about these visitors and engage in conversation about them with your kids.
8. Bring nature into your home and encourage teachers to bring it into the classroom. Fill these spaces with plants and animals that are easy to care for, such as fish and turtles.
9. Be a role model. Get down on their level (literally) and act playfully. Get dirty. Have fun.
10. Remember that, as both Charles and Meredith mentioned, engaging in natural activities does not have to be expensive or difficult. Although it requires time and a mindfulness, it comes with great reward: the health of your children and their appreciation and protective spirit of the planet.


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for_comment's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 49 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 08/16/2010

Long on explaining the problem (particularly given the audience of this site), short on practical suggestions.
A few additional suggestions (mine tend to be aimed more at the 10 + age bracket, and do sometimes require some financial outlay)

1. Get an active pet, e.g. a dog. This obviously can have problems related to allergies. Have the kid understand that they are at least part of the pet, and part of owning the pet, is taking it for walks.

2. Get involved in scouting. This depends heavily on the agenda of the troop leader, but particularly during the summer scouts tend to be involved in outdoor activities.

3. Go camping (without the DS). Preferably short backpack trips, but even car camping is good. Kids will get into smores (yeah, I know junk food), and even the most jaded kid seems to get into ghost stories.

4. Have a picnic lunch on the weekend. Pack up the kids in the car and go someplace that they can get out and explore. Even a local park is good destination. <br><br>

5. Travel, give the kids something exciting to say when they do their “what I did this summer” report. In general try for natural destinations, for example Yosemite rather than New York City.

6. Encourage and support your kids interest in Science. While some science takes place indoors, particle physics anyone? Most science at the kid level is outdoors oriented. Figure out what they are into, be it rocks (Geology), pretty flowers (Botany), or bees (Entomology). As a note most of the science pursuits dovetail nicely into collecting.

7. Encourage your kid to explore your local town. This is much more scary these days than when I was a kid, but get a city map from the department of commerce. These tend to note locations of parks, schools, and other points of interest. Have the kid with your help plan a bike trip to these points. Then let you kid get out and explore.

8. Have a snowball fight with your kids. If you don’t have snow, crumple up some newspaper and have a newspaper fight.

9. Encourage an interest in Astronomy, or any sort of outdoors activity that allows the kid to “break” some of the normal rules, for example going to bed early.

10. Research what to do in Topika (assuming you live in Topika, otherwise wherever you live) books. They can have suggestions on local outdoor activities that you may not be aware of.

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