12 Ways to Help Your Kids Break Free From Electronics and Get Outside
Are you wondering how to get them outside to experience the wonders of nature?
If so, you’re not alone.
Children (and the rest of us) are enamored with our electronic gadgets. We have been sold a bill of goods about the value of having a digital life.
In this article I’ll reveal a dozen ideas I gleaned from Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, which champions a better way for kids to live—with nature.
In a 2010 study, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average young American (ages 8-18) spends practically every waking minute—except for time in school—using a smartphone, computer, television or other electronic device.
Sadly, the quality of life isn’t measured by how many Facebook friends we have, or how well our kids play Wii games or how many songs they have on their iPod. One way to measure is by what we have lost or traded.
As a parent, Last Child in the Woods is one of the most important books you’ll ever read. It sparks a challenging conversation about kids growing up in a culture detached from nature, and makes a strong case for children playing in the great outdoors.
Perhaps you grew up taking nature’s gifts for granted. You assumed that your children and their children would cherish these gifts forever. Instead, what you see is a generation that suffers from what Louv calls nature-deficit disorder.
In this video, author Richard Louv discusses his book, Last Child in the Woods.
Paul, a character in the book and a fourth-grader in San Diego, puts it this way: “I like to play indoors ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
For many children in America, playing in nature is unproductive, off-limits, alien or even dangerous. They’ve been taught to avoid the woods and fields and to stay home. But even they know that something is missing.
Perhaps this is best exemplified by the author’s young son when he asks, “Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?” When Louv asks him what he means, the boy says, “Well you’re always talking about your woods and tree houses and how you used to ride that horse near the swamp.”
But it’s actually well-meaning parents and educators (usually under the influence of the media) who send messages that make it difficult for children to be outside. “Oh, it’s too dangerous.” “We don’t have time.” “You have too much homework.” “What about piano lessons?” “What about gangs and child-snatchers!”
Something Needs to Change
Louv suggests that without nature, our children’s experiences are impoverished.
Children need to live through their senses and since the natural world is the primary source of sensory stimulation, freedom to explore and play with the outdoor environment through the senses in their own space and time is essential for healthy development…
What Studies Show
Meanwhile, studies cited in the book confirm what we already know—that nature promotes the healthy development of children:
- A recent study in Denmark compared two groups of children: one in a traditional kindergarten; the other from a “nature kindergarten,” where kids stayed outdoors all day long throughout the school year. Children in the nature kindergarten were found to be more alert, better at using their motor skills and significantly more creative. In addition, the more creative children emerged as leaders in natural play areas.
- Another study suggests that nature may be a useful therapy for kids with ADHD. Some researchers now recommend that parents and educators make available more natural experiences—especially green places—to kids with ADHD to support their attention function and minimize their symptoms.
What Parents Should Know
The book has a simple message for parents—teach them to experience nature.
It’s funny how American parents say they want their kids to watch less TV, but then continue to expand opportunities for them to do exactly the opposite.
For example, do you really need a backseat flip-down video screen to entertain your kids during road trips? Believe it or not, the highway has a lot to offer.
Encourage your kids to take photos of beautiful landscapes during road trips.
Half a century ago, children learned how cities and nature fit together from the back seat—the fields and farmhouses, the different architecture here and there, the woods and the water—all of these are still available to your children.
There’s a real world out there beyond the car window for children to look at if their parents encourage them to truly see.
12 Ways Parents Can Help
Don’t kid yourself. The reason why children don’t spend much time outdoors is because parents don’t spend much time outdoors! That’s why Louv offers 44 actions that parents can take with their kids. Here are 12 of them:
- Tell your children stories about your special childhood places in nature. Then help them find their own: leaves beneath the backyard willow, the ditch behind the house or the meadow in the woods. This will become their place of intimate connection with nature.
- Read outside. Reading stimulates the imagination, especially when it’s done outside, say in a tree house. Look for nature adventure books, particularly those with young protagonists.
- Adopt the “sunny day rule.” If it’s a beautiful day out, there’s no excuse for your kids to grow roots on the couch. Make them go outside and build something (check out Family Education). Even on rainy days, you can show them the joys of puddle stomping, ditch damming and leaf boating!
- Go on a moth walk. Mix overripe “fruit, stale beer or wine (or old fruit juice) and sweetener (like honey, sugar or molasses) in a blender. Then go outside at sunset and spread the goo on six trees or unpainted, untreated wood. Come back with a flashlight when it’s dark and see what you’ve lured. Depending on the season, you might find moths, ants, earwigs and other insects.”
- Revive old traditions. Collect lightning bugs at dusk, release them at dawn; Make a leaf collection; Keep an aquarium or go crawdadding (tie a piece of liver or bacon to a string, drop it into the pond, and wait until a crawdad tugs).
- Encourage your kids to go camping (in the backyard!). Buy them a tent or help them make a canvas tepee, and leave it up all summer.
- Take a hike. What better way to bond with your children than to walk in the woods together? It’s even better at night when the moon is full. There’s a whole set of new animals, sights and sounds out there. Encourage your kids to listen to animals calling or watch for things glowing. And don’t forget to look up at the stars!
- Got dirt? In some parts of the country, a truckload of dirt is the same price as a video game. Why not buy a load for your kids (plus plastic buckets and shovels) and get dirty together?
- Invite nature into your backyard. Build a birdhouse or a bat house or replace part of your lawn with native plants.
- View nature as an antidote to stress. Children and parents feel better after spending time out in the natural world, even if it’s only the backyard.
- Engage grandparents. They usually have more free time or more flexibility than parents. They also remember when playing outside was considered normal and expected of children. They’ll be happy to pass that heritage on to their grandkids!
- Be a cloudspotter or build a backyard weather station. No special equipment or clothing needed to be a cloudspotter. All you need is for your child to have a view of the sky (even if it’s from a bedroom window) and a guidebook. To build a weather station, read The Kid’s Book of Weather Forecasting by Mark Breen, Kathleen Friestad and Michael Kline.
Some Final Thoughts…
I happened to be reading this book at the same time my son’s first-grade teacher asked me to chaperone the class trip to Irvine Nature Center in Baltimore County. So Louv’s perspective about children and nature-deficit disorder was very much on my mind.
I was curious to see how the kids (whose daily experiences are mostly electronic) interacted with plants, animals and the outdoors. The author’s point that nature is the primary source of sensory stimulation was confirmed.
Most of our time was spent exploring trails, smelling leaves, catching insects, listening to birds or turning over logs to see what was underneath! Those first-graders won’t forget that day for a long time. That’s why I wholeheartedly agree with the theme of this book—children need nature.
I believe parents will have a change of attitude toward the outdoors. As the author suggests, it is mostly the parents’ habits and fears that are keeping kids away from nature and nature’s wonders. If you live in a city or suburb, this book is even more important!
On the downside, the book is unnecessarily long. I understand his passion, but the author tends to get rather long-winded in some sections. It didn’t need to be a 390-page book. That said, read it at your own pace and feel free to scan through certain sections. Either way, it contains very important discussions about things that every parent should know.
My Kids’ Adventures gives this book a 4-star rating (out of 5).
What do you think? Do your children spend much time outdoors? Why or why not? Please leave your questions and comments in the box below.
Images from iStockPhoto.
Patricia Redsicker writes research reviews for Social Media Examiner. She helps business owners craft content that sells. Her blog provides healthcare industry content marketing advice. Other posts by Patricia Redsicker »