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April 2008

Ages & Stages
Into the Woods
11 Ways to Get Your Kids Outdoors

By Maureen L. McElroy, M.A.

Fresh air is good for you! Our mothers and grandmothers told us this, and there is truth to that adage. Time spent outdoors makes children sleep better at night and feel better during the day – both emotionally and physically. According to recent research, not being outside enough may even be detrimental to overall good health.

In his book, Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv notes that kids’ exposure to nature is plummeting, while childhood obesity, depression and attention disorders are increasing. He says, “…as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience.”

Physical activity comes naturally when children spend time outdoors walking, running, biking or just playing. Ben, an 11-year-old from Germantown, began feeling antsy and restless when his PE class, often spent outside, was temporarily cut from his school day. After a brief discussion with his mom about what might help ease his discomfort, he decided to call a friend to go running together, an activity that became a regular part of his routine. “Each time, Ben would come inside satisfied and relaxed enough to face homework,” his mom says.

How empowering it can be to have such a healthy option to turn to when a tween is not feeling himself! Studies at Cornell University show that being exposed to the outdoors and “high-nature conditions” help children cope better with stressful events. Dozens of other studies prove that spending time in nature reduces stress levels in adults and children.

From a more global perspective, the future of our environment depends upon our children’s respect and commitment to the outdoors. Although nature’s beauty is simple, the level of its interconnectedness is intricate. The more kids understand this, the more informed their decisions about their environment will be. Elaine Robinson, a Reston mom of 10-year-old twins, notes that her children’s regard for wildlife comes from spending time outdoors. “We’ve always taken care of hurt bugs or birds and turned over turtles that needed a hand,” Robinson says. Without the experience of being immersed in nature, we lose our appreciation for it. Environmental psychologist Louise Chawla says, “We forge our place; we forget that larger fabric on which our lives depend.” (Louv, 2005)

Here are 11 simple ways to ensure that your kids spend time outdoors.

1. Take a nature-packed vacation. At most local, state and national parks, there is something fun to do for everyone at a fraction of the cost of most commercial vacations. Exploring nature and enjoying the outdoors at their own pace is the perfect setting for kids.

2. Plan day trips to local attractions. The Washington, D.C., area offers many natural locales to explore. Rock Creek Park runs through the center of the city, the Potomac River is easily accessible and the mountains are less than an hour away.

3. Eat meals outside. Having breakfast on the front porch or dinner in the backyard is less distracting than eating inside. Dining alfresco encourages after-meal lingering and offers an opportunity to enjoy nature in your own backyard.

4. Do yardwork together. Children are quite capable in the yard, and it’s the perfect setting for increasing their level of responsibility, from watering and weeding to raking and planting. When children participate in yardwork, they take ownership and pride in the result.

5. Plan social events outside. A group of 9-year-olds recently enjoyed a bike trip from Bethesda to Georgetown, with a stop along the way to grill lunch at Fletcher’s Boathouse. Plan a birthday party that includes a canoe ride on the Potomac or a hike on the Billy Goat Trail.

6. Incorporate nature with current interests. If your daughter likes photography, maybe she’d enjoy taking pictures of nature. If your son is into painting, drawing or writing, suggest that he turn to nature for inspiration.

7. Nurture your enthusiasm for nature. Make time each day for outdoor activity. The next time your kids have an activity that requires you to stay in the area, look for some “green space” to enjoy.

8. Volunteer to protect nature. Invite your family to participate in the cleanup of a local park, or work with a local conservation group. A parent group of a DC area school recently had a specialist talk with eighth graders about invasive plants. Following the instruction, the parents and kids worked together to rid the local park of invasive growth.

9. Enroll in nature programs. Sherrie Maliken, a Washington, D.C., mother of two boys, remembers doing bird walks in the morning and bat walks at night with the Audubon Society in Chevy Chase. “My boys drank it in. They would ask, ‘When can we do that again?’” she says.

10. Bring nature indoors. Research done by NASA shows that indoor plants can help to clean the air of pollutants in the average home. Invite your tween to create a dinner table centerpiece using natural items from the yard.

11. Go outside with your children. One Germantown mom says, “My kids seem to respond better if, rather than sending them outside, I suggest that we all go outside together.” Even 10 minutes of outdoor time together will feel good and may inspire neighbors to join you! In fact, Robinson says that her neighbors have said how much they love seeing her daughters outside, rain or shine.


Maureen L. McElroy is a certified parent educator. She teaches classes at the Parent Encouragement Program (www.PEPParent.org), where workshops and classes are held for parents of children from birth through the teen years.


Looking for Nature-Based Gifts?

* Outdoor sports equipment
* Nature magazine subscription
* Local nature camp gift certificate
* Nature center passes
* Camping equipment
* Nature DVDs, such as Planet Earth
* Guides to local hiking and biking trails


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