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Getting Kids to Play Outdoors Is One of the Best Things You Can Do for Them

Do you remember playing outside as a kid? It was a time to run around and let loose, use your imagination, and explore.


As a child growing up in the eighties, I remember walking to school, riding my bike to the swim club or just around the neighborhood to see friends, and making up all kinds of imaginative games in the woods behind my house. Well, that doesn’t happen much anymore.

Today, children suffer from nature-deficit disorder.

This term was coined by Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network (C&NN). It refers to children having less experience with and connection to nature over the last couple of decades. Here are some facts:

  • Only 6 percent of American children ages 9-13 play outside unsupervised, according to Frances Moore Lappe in her book EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want.
  • In a 2004 survey of 800 American mothers, 71 percent said they played outdoors every day as children but only 26 percent of them said their kids played outdoors daily.
  • The Outdoor Foundation surveyed 40,000 people and found an overall decrease in the amount of time children participated in outdoor activities.
  • A 2005 study indicated that 71 percent of adults reported that they walked or biked to school when they were children but only about 20 percent of children did in 2005. This is very true for my family. We live five minutes from my children’s schools, yet I spend about 2 hours each week in carpool lines.

Why This Is A Problem

Children spending less time outdoors has been linked to decreased appreciation of our environment, health problems including childhood obesity and vitamin D deficiency, diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of emotional illnesses like anxiety and depression.

I want to focus on this last point and how nature helps reduce stress and anxiety.  If children are no longer outside playing and enjoying themselves, then how will they naturally calm down and relax?

Well, the statistics are frightening. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), it is estimated that 1 in 8 children suffers from an anxiety disorder. More worrisome, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of teens ages 13-18 will experience some form of anxiety.

Additionally, the use of anti-anxiety medications is exploding. It increased by almost 50 percent for children ages 10-19 between 2001-2010, explained Scott Shannon, author of Mental Health for the Whole Child: Moving Young Clients from Disease & Disorder to Balance & Wellness.

How Nature Helps Reduce Stress

Contact with nature promotes healing.

A growing number of studies from around the world show that spending time in nature can improve mental health. Examples include recreation activities in the wilderness, community gardens, views of nature and/or gardens at hospitals, and contact with animals. Why is this the case?

  • Humans have a nature instinct known as biophilia—an innate bond we share with all creatures and plants in the natural world that we subconsciously seek.
  • Nature provides a sense of wellbeing.
  • The natural world offers solace and comfort unlike what we find in any manmade environment.
  • Spending time in nature reduces the level of human response to stress and allows us to recover from stressful situations more quickly.
  • Having contact with nature promotes healing. A breakthrough study in 2001 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that a healing garden at a children’s hospital in California had positive effects on users—about 85 percent reported feeling more relaxed, refreshed, or better able to cope after spending only 5 minutes in the garden.

8 Science-Backed Reasons for Letting Your Kids Play Outdoors

How Did We Get Here?

Richard Louv quotes a fourth-grader: “I Like to play indoors better because that’s where all the electric outlets are.”

Five key changes over the last 30+ years have impacted our relationship with nature:

  1. How Society Developed. We are increasingly living in urban areas. According to the United Nations, almost 50 percent of all people in the world now live in urban areas, and this is projected to increase to 65 percent by the year 2030. Also, poorly designed outdoor spaces make it more difficult for children to play outside.
  2. Fear. Richard Louv wrote: “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature.” Since the 1980s, we live in a more fearful society hyped up by 24/7 media reporting, which was intensified after 9/11. Parents worry about many safety concerns that impact the time their children spend outside, such as traffic, crime, strangers, injury, and nature itself (e.g. skin cancer due to sun exposure, bug bites, and harmful animals.) A 1991 study of 3 generations of 9-year-olds showed that between 1970-1990, the radius around home where children were allowed to roam on their own shrunk to 1/9 of what it was in 1970. Imagine what that statistic is today!
  3. Technology. Children spend more and more time focused on screens instead of nature scenes. According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, daily media use among children and teens has risen dramatically. Today, 8- to 18-year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week!). Common Sense Media reports a huge increase in the use of mobile media by young children in the past couple of years. To learn more, check out this fantastic infographic summarizing the findings of their 2015 survey. Finally, in his book, Richard Louv sadly quotes a fourth-grader: “I Like to play indoors better because that’s where all the electric outlets are.”
  4. Time pressures. Children are living an overly structured lifestyle involving sports teams, indoor play centers, homework, extracurricular activities, etc., that prevent them from simply enjoying free play outdoors.
  5. Education trends. Unfortunately, outdoor education is not a priority, and recess time and physical education classes are being threatened in many schools.

How Can You Help?

Spend more time outside as a family. Don’t overthink this.

We are all struggling to balance a million priorities and to make the best decisions for our family. Now that you know how critical it is to our children’s wellbeing for them to spend time outside in nature, you may want to take some steps:

  • Spend more time outside as a family. Don’t overthink this. Keep your children’s outdoor time unstructured–go for a walk, visit a local park, ride bikes, have a healthy meal in your backyard, garden.
  • Plan day trips and vacations based on National Parks or other outdoor experiences.
  • Register your children for outdoor sports and summer camp.
  • Teach children to “stop and smell the roses”. In other words, be mindful of nature around you.
  • Lobby for your school to keep physical education and recess on your child’s schedule.
  • Start a nature group at your child’s school.
  • Get involved in a community garden or local environmental group.
  • Examine ways to minimize technology use in your house. Common Sense Media is a fabulous resource to explore.

There is hope.  Recently, my son and I met a friend of his for a playdate at the local library. At first the kids played video games on the computers, but once the rain stopped the boy’s mother suggested we go outside to feed the ducks with some bread that she brought. I thought, “What a wonderful idea!”

We ended up discovering some trails around the lake and really enjoyed ourselves. My son had a blast exploring in nature. Through this experience, I learned that it is very easy to be creative and add some nature experiences back into our children’s lives. Get them out from behind the screen, and go explore outdoors! (Just remember to bring your sunscreen and bug spray.)

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I had big plans to be a "good mom" this summer. There were going to be chore charts, reading goals, daily letter writing practice, and cursive classes. There would be no screen time until the beds were made, and planned activities for each day of the week.

Today was the first day of summer vacation and our scheduled beach day. But here's what we did instead: Lounged in our pj's until 11 am, baked the girl's pick, chocolate chip cookie brownies, started an art project we never finished, then moved to the pool.

It's so easy to be pressured by things we see on social. Ways to challenge our kids and enrich their summer. But let's be real—we're all tired. Tired of chores, tired of schedules and places to be, tired of pressure, and tired of unrealistic expectations.

So instead of a schedule, we're doing nothing this summer. Literally NOTHING.

No camps. No classes, and no curriculums.

Instead, we're going to see where each day takes us. I've dubbed this the "Summer of Me," so workouts and clean eating are a priority for me. And also giving our girls the freedom to pick what they want to do.

We may go to a local pool and check out the swimming programs. And we join the local YMCA. But whatever we do—it will be low key.

It will include family time, too much TV, a few trips, lots of sunshine, some new roller skates, water balloons, plenty of boredom, rest, relaxation, and reading. (Because mama likes to read!)

So if you haven't figured out what you're doing this summer, you're not alone. And guess what? It's OKAY! Your kids will be fine and so will you.

Originally posted on Kristen Hewitt's blog. Check out her post on 30 ways to have fun doing almost nothing this summer.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

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