In the early 1960s, naturalist and writer Rachel Carson was making waves with her then controversial book “Silent Spring” in which she warned of the long-term effects of pesticides and pollution on our environment.
Carson was a fierce advocate for not only protecting our natural environment, but for educating the public about appreciating what is right in front of them.
She was particularly passionate about encouraging children to explore and learn about the wonders of our natural world, to feed their own natural curiosity and let them get dirty.
Fifty years later, Carson’s message is getting renewed attention as people as varied as wildlife organizations, child development experts, and physicians are calling for kids to get in touch with nature and simply playing outdoors on a regular basis.
“In the last two decades, childhood has moved indoors. The average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen. This shift inside profoundly impacts the wellness of our nation’s kids, “the National Wildlife Federation stated in its recent report titled “Be Out There.”
Dr. Jonathan Gibson, a family physician with the Edward Medical Group in Naperville, agreed on the renewed push for getting kids to play outside. Just the physical activity alone is a major benefit from staring at a TV screen or technology all day
“The big thing is to get them off the tablets and go out and just be a kid. Let them get out and get moving and be spontaneous,” Gibson said.
Free, unstructured play encourages creativity and lets children come up with their own ideas for games and rules.
Also, free play is critical for development of problem-solving skills “that can be used over a lifetime,” Gibson said.
And there is just the fun element involved of letting kids be kids by “getting out in the mud” and discover their world on their terms, he said.
The NWF report stated that for many reasons, including technology and overly scheduled lives, kids today are disconnected from the natural world and that is having a negative effect on their health. “Our kids are out of shape, tuned out and stressed out,” the NWF report stated.
Locally, Laura McCoy is dedicated to helping people make a personal connection to their immediate environment. As the education supervisor for the Kendall County Forest Preserve District, McCoy develops programs that teach all ages to appreciate “what is right in front of us.”
KIds should be encouraged to start exploring their back yards and see something as mundane and yet amazing as a spider web, she said. “You don’t need to travel to the Amazon or some other rain forest to find some amazing things. We want people to be aware of the wonder of things that are right here in Illinois,” McCoy said.
And it doesn’t cost much to enjoy it. “(Nature) is accessible to anyone. No matter what your income and where you live. Just look around you,” McCoy said.
It is never too young for kids to begin exploring and Kendall County offers programs for children beginning at age 1. “Getting them early is big because then it becomes part of their lives, it becomes part of the value system for life,” McCoy said. “Once they are hooked, then around 3 the questions start coming, the whys start.”
Those “whys” are good as it leads to those critical thinking skills that Gibson said are so important.
As they mature, young kids can then develop their own outdoor and nature games, finding sticks, using boxes and creating their own activity. “We are definitely advocates of that,” McCoy said.
The forest district programs enhance and educate what the children learn through their own curiosity, she said.
The school-age kids really start to make connections from things they have observed themselves and what they are learning at school.
“They are really starting to watch things, they can see the cycles during the seasons and they see the details of the changes. They can formulate questions. They know photosynthesis and see how it works,” McCoy said.
As kids reach the junior high age, it can be more of challenge to get them away from the tablets, iPads and smart phones, but McCoy said technology can be a tool in nature exploration. The forest district uses apps that can appeal to that age group.
“It shows them how to be scientists. You can document the item you see without removing it. You can take the image with you and respect the environment,” she said.
Technology is a part of our lives and finding ways to make it beneficial for kids is important, Gibson added.
“Those computer skills are valuable but there is also the value of getting outside, running around and being active,” he said.
Being spontaneous, exploring outside provides both physical and mental stimulation, Gibson said.
The dominance of technology in kids’ daily lives has sparked the call for environmental education and free play. “Free play is essential. I can see the value is extremely strong now for getting kids away from screens and out exploring,” McCoy said.Tags: parenting
Outdoor play increases fitness levels and builds active, healthy bodies, an important strategy in helping the one in three American kids who are obese get fit.
Spending time outside raises levels of Vitamin D, helping protect children from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues.
Being out there improves distance vision and lowers the chance of nearsightedness.
Exposure to natural settings may be widely effective in reducing ADHD symptoms.
Schools with environmental education programs score higher on standardized tests in math, reading, writing and listening.
Exposure to environment-based education significantly increases student performance on tests of their critical thinking skills.
Children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces.
Play protects children’s emotional development whereas loss of free time and a hurried lifestyle can contribute to anxiety and depression.
Nature makes you nicer, enhancing social interactions, value for community and close relationships.
Source: National Wildlife Foundation “Be Out There” report