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Growing the next generation of caretakers - October 29, 2013

There is an old Chinese proverb that, roughly translated, says “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now.”

This quote speaks to our legacy, not just the manmade one but also the natural legacy that we leave for our children and their children. The condition in which we leave our planet and its natural ecosystem to those generations that follow speaks volumes to not only the way we lived, but also who we are as individuals and, maybe more importantly, part of the collective group known as mankind in the 21st century.

Every forest starts as nothing more than seeds. These seeds must be nurtured and given every opportunity to grow and spread their branches in order for the forest to mature. It is the same with children and garnering a love for the great outdoors and our local and global ecosystems.

One of the best ways to do this is to simply get kids outside. I say simply, even though there are a myriad of different distractions calling out for kids’ attention these days including TV, social media, video games and more.

It is a lame excuse for parents to say that their kids do not want to go outside and play anymore. I know from experience that kids, if given the time and opportunity, will happily run around a forest for hours building forts, hiking trails and discovering the abundance of amazing life surrounding them every day.

Unfortunately, many children these days are simply not allowed the time or opportunities to go out into nature and explore and discover. Family schedules are rigidly enforced by soccer moms and football dads so their kid is “occupied” for most, if not all, of their time out of school. This strict scheduling, while often exposing kids to a variety of interesting after-school activities, does not provide the same benefits as letting the child explore the world around them. It is out in nature, out in the parks, forests and fields of our own childhood memories, that kids learn and grow the most.

There are many benefits to outdoor play for kids, regardless of age. Playing and exploring in nature helps to facilitate a love of the outdoors and a better understanding of the natural world. It reduces stress, promotes critical thinking, creativity, analyzing and observational skills, and increases self-confidence in ways that could never be duplicated indoors.

Playing outdoors also helps to develop fine motor skills and improved immune systems, and helps contribute to the development of cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of ­children.

Doctors, parents and educators have seen a disturbing trend of negative effects due to the dwindling amount of time that kids spend outside. These range from reduced cognitive development as a result of overly structured activities that do not stimulate problem solving and creativity, to childhood obesity, reduced muscle development and balance and other physical ailments.­

Getting kids outside to play does not have to eat into a family’s already busy schedule. Just like cramming for a test the night before, it does not do any good to force kids outside for a pre-scheduled amount of time only once or twice. The best way for kids to gain the maximum benefits of outdoor play is to get them out in nature frequently and, if possible, in a wide variety of different ecosystems. Also, be creative and different with ways to get kids outside. Doing the same thing like bike riding can be fun, but it also limits a child’s exposure to new and wonderful things in nature.

Take kids out with family and friends for camping, canoeing, boating, fishing, hunting, hiking or biking trips. Create a nature play space in the backyard and walk or bike instead of drive to friends’ houses and businesses when possible. Give kids toys and tools to use outside like a magnifying glass, bug box, trowel or flashlight. Help them make up games and do scavenger hunts in your backyard, local park or forest.

Encourage them to take pictures and videos or write stories and poetry of their adventures and what they find to share with friends and relatives. Provide them with identification books and guides and challenge them to learn new species both locally and globally. Help them plant a tree or build a bird or bat box. In general, just let them have fun and discover their local environment and, most importantly, be kids.

Getting kids outside and exploring nature is not just about growing and nurturing children — it is also about creating lifelong memories. Waking up at dawn and seeing the sun rise, catching your first fish, chasing a rabbit through a field or watching the stars sparkle in the night sky while sitting around a warm campfire surrounded by friends and family create a sense of wonder and stewardship that no amount of classroom education or lecturing could ever replicate.

It is these memories of the time spent outside that creates a love for nature and can nurture a tender spark of interest into a lifelong flame of ­passion for the great outdoors.

 

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