Building forts in the woods, playing baseball at the corner lot, swinging on a backyard tire. Sounds like a typical afternoon for most children, right? Think again. Healthy outdoor play for kids has declined significantly in the past generation, according to physical education experts.
In a 2004 study, 70 percent of moms interviewed said they played outdoors every day as children, while only 31 percent said their children play outdoors as often. And the study’s author says the trend is growing as television programs and computer games are increasingly designed to target youngsters. “Even two years after the study, children are staying indoors more and developing poor eating and physical activity habitsand at a younger age,” says Rhonda L. Clements, professor of education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., and a past president of the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play.
Clements urges parents, educators and recreation specialists to get children off the couch, away from the TV screen and into the great outdoorsespecially given the dramatic national increase in childhood obesity. “The most critical benefit of outdoor play is that it develops a child’s physical and motor skills,” Clements says. “It’s easily the best setting to let a child move vigorously and be noisy and have a healthy overall development.”
But there’s more. Playing outside inspires children’s imaginations, unleashes creativity and relieves stress. Exploring nature opens their eyes to the world around them, beyond what they see through television, computers and books. It lets them use all of their sensesnot just seeing and hearingand gives them a chance to interact with people and with nature instead of just with a video game controller and remote control.
Moms agreed that when their children played outside regularly, their grades improved, self-esteem increased and creativity flowed. Not to mention sleeping better from all that activity.
There are simple ways for parents to encourage their children to engage in outdoor, active playtime. Let them have some say in what they do outdoors. Allow them to choose between riding their bikes or going for a walk with you. Only allow them to watch TV after they have played outside for a specified amount of time. Take daily walks together. Dedicate time each week to going outside to play together. Dress them in play clothes, and arrange outdoor play dates with other children to let them interact with other kids and develop social skills.
The outdoors is filled with many body-exercising, memory-making things to do. Plant a garden, barbecue dinner, put up a tent in the backyard or hold a scavenger hunt. Encourage children to create activities using natural objects such as rocks, twigs and water. Let them draw in the dirt, make mud pies and jump in a pile of leaves.
“Children have wonderful imaginations,” Clements says. “Just allow them time to go out and get dirty.”