By Laura Spanel
When was the last time you remember going outside and actively playing with your children? Unfortunately, more activities are taking place inside and become the typical routine in the lives of American children. The National Wildlife Foundation cites a study completed by The Nielson Company which indicated that children ages two-five years old now spend more than 32 hours a week on average in front of a TV screen.
That same study went on to claim that by the time most children attend kindergarten, they have watched more than 5,000 hours of television. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (2010), the amount of screen time only increases with age, with school-aged children spending 7.5 hours a day on electronic media. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents establish “screen-free” zones home and that children/teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than 1-2 hours/day. They recommend avoiding television and other entertainment media for infants and children under age 2.
The Importance of Outdoor Play
The outdoors is the best place for any child to practice gross motor skills such as running, skipping, climbing, and jumping. Outdoor spaces also yield the best places to practice manipulative skills such as ball-handling, pumping a swing, turning a jump rope, and pushing/pulling movable objects. When children play on swings they use all of their muscles to hold on, balance, and coordinate their body. Swinging also provides the experience of cause and effect and of understanding spatial learning such as up and down and back and forth.
The outdoors offers opportunities for cognitive and social/emotional development. Outside, children are more likely to invent games though which they learn about such executive function skills as problem solving, time management, organization skills, emotional regulation, and impulse control. Inventing rules for games promotes an understanding of why rules are necessary. They learn such important skill as communication among group members and how to deal with loses and gains.
Outdoor play also has many excellent health benefits such as preventing obesity though active play. Outdoor play increases fitness levels and builds active, healthy bodies. When children engage in active play outside they don’t realize that they are exercising. They view it as just having fun. Many studies now suggest that as many as half of American children are not getting enough exercise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says childhood obesity rates more than doubled from 1980 to 2010.
Outdoor play is also important for many less obvious health benefits such as raising the levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D has been shown to help protect child from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues. Sunlight also stimulates the pineal gland which is vital to our immune system. A study reported by Optometry and Vision Science found that children who spend time outside have better distance vision than those who primarily play indoors. The outdoors offers many opportunities for the development of our sensory systems.
Children learn much through their senses. Outside there are many different things for us to see, hear, touch, small, move, taste, and move. Children who spend a lot of time acquiring their experiences through electronics are only uses two senses (hearing and sight). Outdoor play is also important for reducing stressing and rejuvenating our inner spirit. Unfortunately, childhood mental health disorders are increasing. The Children and Nature Network says contact with nature can help reduce stress levels and positively impact conditions such as anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The American Academy of Pediatrics says outdoor play has been shown to help children focus better in a classroom setting and to enhance readiness for learning. Researchers at the University of Illinois surveyed parents of more than 400 girls and boys diagnoses with ADHD about their children’s performance in a wide range of activities. Activities that involved outdoor time were rated on average more positively. Another survey in 2010 by the National Wildlife Foundation founds that 77% of the nearly 2,000 educators surveyed felt that children who spend regular tome outside are better able to concentrate.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends that children get moderate to vigorous activity that adds up to at least an hour per day. The need to move and play outside is being recognized nationally. In June 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama formally launched the “Let’s Move Outside!” initiative as part of her broad campaign to tackle childhood obesity. During that same month, all 50 Governors declared June 2010 “Great Outdoors Month.” The Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK) also launched that same year with the goal to advance public policy, raise decision-maker awareness, and engage young people in the movement to reconnect children, young, and families with the outdoors.
Activities for the Great Outdoors
- A nature walk is a great way to first introduce the enjoyment of nature. In 2013, Mayor Emanuel and the Chicago Park District launched a five-year renovation project to target the replacement of equipment of over 300 playgrounds throughout the city. For a list within Chicago please visit: http://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/facilities/playgrounds/#.U4H6OvldWSo. According to Chicago Park District, more than 150 revamped playgrounds provide an accessible soft surface base and play elements that meet or exceed the Americans with Disabilities Act minimum standards. Out on the lakefront, 16 of 31 Chicago beaches have an accessible walkway. You can also visit (http://www.accessibleplayground.net/united-states/illinois) for a list if you live in the suburbs or are traveling within Illinois.
- When outside, ask your children to tell you what they’re seeing, hearing, and smelling. Maybe even create a little scavenger hunt. The National Wildlife Foundation offers some ideas on their website http://www.nwf.org/kids/family-fun/outdoor-activities/backyard-scavenger-hunt.aspx. A “listening” walk makes for a wonderful sound discrimination activity. What sounds can the children identify on their own? Which are loud and which are soft? Which are high and which are low? What are their favorite sounds? You can even bring along a tape recorder so the children can try to identify the sounds at a later time.
- Bring the parachute or an old sheet outside and play parachute games (shaking it, circling with it, making waves with it, or bouncing foam balls on it). Here is a link to a variety of different parachute games: http://www.playparachutes.com/pagaac.html. If your child uses a wheelchair for mobility and has upper body movement, they can still be involved by holding onto the parachute or throwing the ball inside.
- Many children love ball games. Here are instructions for making a homemade PVC T-ball stand to include a variety of children of different ages, skills, and disabilities (http://www.ehow.com/how_8310537_make-tball-stand-pvc.html). Pair children up so one can hit a ball and the other can run the bases. Also try using Velcro ball mitts to help when playing catch. You can also play beanbag games with larger targets for children with visual impairments or difficulty with gross motor skills.
- Try “water painting,” in which children paint the side of a building with a brush and a bucket of water. It exercises arms and upper torso while also teaching about wet and dry, light and dark, and evaporation.
- Blowing, chasing, and popping bubbles gives children a chance to run and everyone can be involved depending on their abilities.