As a child, I remember being practically locked out of my house, even in winter, and told to play outside with the neighborhood kids. We were a motley crew, with dirt under our fingernails and holes in the knees of our pants. We spent hours wading in the creek behind our third grade teacher’s house, riding our bikes and playing at the school playground. On snow days, we built epic snowmen and tunnels dug out of snow banks with my mother’s cookware utensils. As an adult, I still feel a connection with the forest, lakes and streams.
When I think of the way my children are growing up, it’s different than how I remember being a kid. My oldest child is only in kindergarten, and we already have a schedule of summer camp, soccer, t-ball and play dates. She watches a list of television shows and has a mini-dvd player to take on long car rides. She plays computer games and even has one of those indoor bikes that powers a video game when she pedals. She is in wonderful shape. She loves running and jumping and playing. She excels at sports, but she’s not really so much an “outdoorsy” sort of girl.
Kids are simply not getting outside as much as they used to. Statistics say that about 49 percent of preschool aged children are not playing outdoors every day and are spending as much as eight hours per day in front of electronic media. African American and Hispanic mothers are much less likely to take their children outside to play, which could account for higher rates of obesity and obesity-related illness in minority children. Also, children who are cared for at home are less likely to spend time outside than children who attend child care centers.
We may believe that, as long as they’re staying active, there aren’t really any health consequences that come along with raising our children mostly indoors. Since my daughter is athletic and participates in a lot of play and spots, I don’t need to worry about her well being, right?
Well, experts say no. While physical activity and healthy weight-management are associated with playing out of doors, it isn’t the only way being outside helps to keep our kids healthy.
According to the Children & Nature Network, an organization created to encourage and support the people and other organizations working nationally and internationally to reconnect children with nature, contact with nature can reduce stress, promote cognitive development and alleviate depression and hyper activity/attention deficit disorders.
Green environments are essential to human health and life. Without them, we couldn’t survive. By connecting with the environment, kids can learn how to interact with nature in a way that fosters an ongoing and lifelong relationship with the land that sustains them. For example, children who garden have a better understanding of food, namely the importance of healthy food and how we obtain it. Tending a small plot, or even growing a single plant can help a kid understand the way life works; how a juicy red tomato off of the vine is better for you than their pale, uniform, packaged counterparts in the grocery store.
Studies show that girls are less likely to play outside than boys, but that girls who play in the dirt are healthier and happier. Playing house, tea party and dressing up in clothing that isn’t meant to get dirty are common activities in the daily lives of many little girls, but these pursuits could be harming the health of our daughters.
Sharyn Clough, a researcher at Oregon State University, has discovered that debilitating allergies in women, and other autoimmune disorders, such as Lupus, could be the result of being too clean and underexposed to common germs and bacteria.
Playing in the dirt strengthens immunity. Dr. Aoi Mizushima of Providence Medical Group Family Practice states that rates of allergies, asthma and hay fever in children has increased by 400 percent in recent years, and she attributes this to the underexposure of children to the natural debris and microbes in outdoor air and dirt.
Exposure to nature also promotes healthy social behavior and lessens social dysfunction, improves resilience and helps people to recover from trauma.
We’ve all heard of dysfunctional and at risk youth being sent to wilderness camps to participate in team building exercises and meditation in order to heal and learn to live in healthier more holistic ways.
For a number of reasons, when depressed, aggressive and out of control youth spend time in a natural environment, their health and behavior improve dramatically.
After encountering so much evidence in support of playing outside, I’m pledging to get my daughters away from the television this summer and out into the yard exploring to make memories while growing stronger, happier and healthier.