Hiking, fishing, riding bikes, playing in the sandbox, catching bugs and helping in the garden are just a few of the activities that Rebecca Renfroe's three children enjoy on a regular basis. Renfroe, 29, a stay-at-home mom in Soda Springs, Idaho (pop. 3,381), is a firm believer in old-fashioned outdoor play.
"We want to give our kids the memories we have from our own childhood of freedom to explore and create," she says. "And we want to steer them away from spending too much time with 'plug-in drugs'things like TV, videogames and the Internet."
Renfroe's children are in a minority. Research shows that the amount of time kids spend outdoors has declined drastically compared with that of previous generations. Instead of splashing in puddles and digging in the dirt, today's children play video games, send text messages to friends and peruse Facebook on the Internet.
When kids do unplug and go outside, it's often for structured pursuits such as soccer and Little Leaguesports activities that can get kids fit and active but cannot replace carefree time outdoors.
"When children get to interact with the natural worldexploring it at their own pace, in their own waythey enjoy formative experiences that challenge their minds, bodies and spirits and help all three grow," says Todd Christopher, co-founder of the National Wildlife Federation's Green Hour campaign, which urges parents to allot an hour a day for unstructured outdoor play and interaction with the natural world.
The focus on outdoor play is more than just another parenting philosophy; it's a proven strategy for helping kids grow and learn. Valerie Fellows, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service program Let's Go Outside, says research has found many benefits of outdoor play and nature activities, including:
- Improved thinking skills and creativity;
- Better motor skills and physical fitness;
- Less psychological stress;
- Fewer symptoms of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
By making outdoor time a family affair, you also build memories that last a lifetime.
Shawna Andreasen, 30, a mother of three in Helper, Utah (pop. 2,025), says she and her husband, Damon, 32, have shared their love of hiking, snowboarding and rock climbing with their kids from an early age. "When you're outside together, all your senses are being used," Andreasen says. "It's a different level of interaction and experience than you get anywhere else."
Ready to send the kids outside? Here are some tips:
- Open the door. Little steps can make a big difference. "If the TV is on and snacks are sitting around, the kids are going to stay inside," says Andreasen, who founded the website NatureForKids.net. "But if we turn off the TV and open the door, the kids naturally gravitate outdoors."
- Be a role model. "Research indicates that being taken outdoors by a trusted caregivera parent, aunt, grandparentis associated with a lifelong concern and greater respect for the natural world," Christopher says.
- Start close to home. Plenty of fun can be shared in your own backyard. "Sit outside and listen to all the birds around you," Fellows suggests. "Or collect acorns and sticks from your yard to create a piece of nature artwork."
- Dine outdoors. A picnic is a great way to get the family outdoors together. "Our picnics usually involve hiking . . . and finding a nice, comfy rock or log to sit on to enjoy the view while we eat," Andreasen says. "I think what the kids like most about the picnics is simply that they're outside."
- Look up at the sky. Share story time under the stars, says Jennifer Ward, a mom in Edwardsville, Ill. (pop. 21,491), and author of I Love Dirt! 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature. Or try cloud racing. Have everyone pick a cloud and then see whose is the first to reach the nearest tree or telephone pole.
- Reach out to others. Visit the Children & Nature Network's Nature Clubs for Families website, www.childrenandnature.org/natureclubs, to find other families in your area wanting to get together for outdoor fun.