Send the Kids Outside!

Think back to your own childhood. Chances are, some of your fondest memories are of outdoor activities and places. Perhaps you had a favorite climbing tree or secret hiding place. Maybe you remember jumping rope or learning to turn cartwheels with your best friend or playing fetch with the family dog. Do you recall the smell of lilacs, the feel of the sun on the first day warm enough to take off your jacket, or the taste of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich eaten on a blanket in the park? Did you enjoy lying on your back and finding creatures in the clouds?

Now ask yourself: Don't I want my child to have similar memories? Wonderful, happy memories?

Unfortunately, a great many of today's children will grow up without such fond memories because today's children spend far less time outdoors than did previous generations. According to William Doherty of the University of Minnesota, over the last twenty years there has been a 25 percent decline in the time children spend playing and a 50 percent decline in time spent in unstructured outdoor activities.

It is unfortunate because when children spend most of their time indoors, they'll not just be missing out on memories but also on everything else the outdoors has to offer them.

To begin with, the outdoors is the best place for young children to practice and master emerging physical skills and to experience the pure joy of movement. It's also the place where they're likely to burn the most calories, which is absolutely necessary in the fight against obesity.

Also, the outside light stimulates the pineal gland, which is the part of the brain that helps regulate the biological clock, is vital to the immune system, and simply makes us feel happier. Outside light triggers the synthesis of vitamin D. And a number of studies have demonstrated that it increases academic learning and productivity!

Young children learn much through their senses, and the outdoors is a virtual wonderland for the senses. There are different and incredible things for the children to see (insects, clouds, and shadows), to hear (traffic sounds, birdsongs, leaves rustling in the wind), to smell (flowers and the rain-soaked ground), to touch (a fuzzy caterpillar or the bark of a tree), and even to taste (newly fallen snow, a raindrop, or a freshly picked blueberry). Children who spend much of their time acquiring experiences through television, computers, and even books are using only two senses (hearing and sight), and this can seriously affect their perceptual abilities. Additionally, much of this learning, which falls under the content area of science, can't be acquired indoors. Nor can children who spend most of their time indoors be expected to learn to care for the environment.

Outside, children are more likely to invent games. As they do, they're able to express themselves and learn about the world in their own way. They feel safe and in control, which promotes autonomy, decision making, and organizational skills. Inventing rules for games promotes an understanding of why rules are necessary. And although children are just playing to have fun, they learn:

* communication skills and vocabulary, as they invent, modify, and enforce rules;

* number relationships, as they keep score and count; and

* social skills, as they learn to play together.

Then, too, there's the aesthetic value of the outdoors. Because the natural world is filled with amazing sights, sounds, and textures, it's the perfect resource for the development of aesthetics in young children. Since aesthetic awareness means a heightened sensitivity to the beauty around us, it's something that can serve children well at those times when, as adolescents and adults, the world seems less than beautiful.

Further, Mary Rivkin, author of The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children's Right to Play Outside, tells us there is on very basic reason that children need to experience being outside: humans evolved in the outdoors. They thus have a link with nature that can't be replaced - in fact, will be atrophied - by technology. She asks if, lacking intimate association with nature, we can still be human!

Children learn their values from the important adults in their lives. When they're not encouraged to go outdoors, they learn sedentary habits not easily changed and, more unfortunately, that the outdoor environment is of little significance.

Rae Pica is a children's physical activity specialist and author of Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activities (McGraw-Hill, 2003). You can visit Rae and read more articles at

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