"But I want to play inside where the electrical outlets are!"
Sound familiar? With so many TV shows, video games and computer activities to choose from, sometimes it's hard for parents to encourage kids to spend at least part of their day playing outdoors. And why should parents bother? What does it matter if kids play outside?
Take a moment to reflect on your favorite childhood memories. Do they include images of playing freely in a vacant lot, creek bed, patch of woods or marshy ditch? How about summer vacations spent near a river or lake? Research shows that these simple, childhood experiences may heavily influence the attitudes we have toward the environment as adults.
Louis Chawla, professor of psychology at Kentucky State University, surveyed adults who are interested in protecting the environment. She found, "Most respondents attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources: many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught a respect for nature."
So what does playing outdoor games, building stick forts, chasing frogs and digging in the dirt do for kids? Not only is it fun, outdoor play helps kids develop emotionally and intellectually by offering them:
The freedom to follow their imaginations Whether they're making up games or tossing bugs into a spider's web, playing freely in natural areas allows kids to make their own rules, dream up their own stories and experiments, and come to their own conclusions—all at their own pace.
Endless stimulation and challenges Unlike playground equipment which responds the same way every time it's used, nature changes at the whim of the life that inhabits it. An overturned log may reveal a mouse nest one day and a huge, spongy mushroom the next. Meeting small challenges like climbing a tree or crossing a stream on a log bridge can build confidence and self-esteem.
First hand experience and knowledge It's possible to read about a campfire or see one on TV. But a TV image can't compete with relaxing under the stars and feeling how a campfire warms you from the outside in, listening for its unpredictable pops and crackles and watching its flames glow red, blue and gold.
So how can I help my kids connect with nature?
Above all, you don't need to be knowledgeable about nature, just enthusiastic.
Examine the barriers Think about what might be keeping you and your kids from spending more time outdoors. No electrical outlets? Don't know where to go? Afraid of getting hurt? Busy with after school activities? Just never made it a priority? If you feel the benefits to outdoor play outweigh the obstacles, try one of our favorites listed below.
Share your enthusiasm Remember that there's no expertise needed to talk with your kids about what catches your interest. Share your reactions to the sliminess of a worm, the perfection of a tiny blossom or the unexpected rainbow in a mud puddle. Hear your children's observations and ask them about their outdoor adventures.
Childhood is the time to discover and enjoy the wonders of nature. Serious talk of endangered animals in far off places and complicated conservation actions can wait for middle school when children are developmentally ready for more abstract information and have developed a strong emotional connection to the natural world.