What was playtime like when you were growing up? Was it outside—defending forts and exploring streambeds with your friends? Did your parents think it was too dangerous for you to roam around by yourself? Did you prefer playing on the basketball court or playing video games?
What were vacations like? Did you take them? Where did you go? Big cities, national parks or somewhere in between? Did you spend your nights in air conditioned resorts or zipped up in a tent under the stars?
Whatever your childhood experiences may have been, chances are they shaped your relationship to the natural world today—and their impact will linger long into your adult life. And, as we’re now learning through an array of studies of the current generation—a crew of folk who seem to spend far less time outdoors than any previous generation—having outdoor experiences can have big impacts on other areas of your life, too.
One of the most obvious impacts of outdoor playtime is a marked improvement in physical fitness. That’s not to say that you can’t get a workout indoors—and certainly the multi-tasking studiers perched on the treadmills and bikes at Stanford’s gyms prove that you can get your cardio and your A+’s simultaneously.
But when it comes to inspiring a fit lifestyle, there’s nothing quite as successful as turning kids outdoors to play starting at a young age. In fact, many believe that childhood obesity—which turns into adult obesity and, ultimately, produces the obesity epidemic currently confronting our country—can be curtailed by introducing a more rigorous outdoor gym program in elementary schools.
Beyond physical fitness, outdoor playtime can also have big effects on the developing brain. Teachers who incorporated the outdoors into their teaching found that their students performed better in math and science than those who stuck to the original curriculum. And some children seem to return from outdoor outings with longer attention spans than when they left.
Plenty of research also suggests that outdoor time can improve our moods, enhance our social interactions and generally make us nicer people. So the benefits of getting outside are at least three-pronged: physical, mental and emotional.
But in a world where kids spend less than 10 minutes per day engaged in outdoor activities (compared to a whopping 7.5 hours in front of digital screens like TVs, iPhones and computers), how can we ensure that our children reap these triple benefits?
Some, like me, will grow up in homes with parents who value the outdoors, either for its own sake or because they understand the importance of nature exposure to child development. Others will extend this experience—or begin it—when they leave home, perhaps on a camping trip with college friends or a first visit to a National Park.
But what about the other kids, the ones who don’t have this access through their families or who live in areas remote from “wilderness” or walled in by urban sprawl? And how much “nature” do they need? Will a local city green space—combined with the occasional school field trip to a more remote location—serve that purpose? Or does everyone need a multi-day, life-altering backpacking trip in the high Sierras?
It’s for these kids that Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI) and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) introduced the “Healthy Kids Outdoors Act,” which would provide funding to programs that try to connect children to the outdoors. It’s not the first time legislation of this kind has been introduced—a previous iteration of the Healthy Kids Act died in a previous congressional session, and a similar bill, the “No Child Left Inside Act,” was referred to committee almost a year ago. According to govtrack.us, a legislative transparency site, the NCLIA has a zero percent chance of being enacted.
The hearts of these legislators are in the right place, even if change is a long way off. Certainly, they have the support of many environmental advocacy groups, who recognize the importance of connecting kids with nature to ensure that the conservation ethic stays alive and well in America. But they also need the support of you and me, both intellectually and through our actions.
It’s our job to make sure that our kids—when and if we have them—get outside. By the time we’re chasing toddlers around, the research will be even clearer, but the societal shift into the digital vacuum will have progressed even further. So in the meantime, try to get outside yourself to cement that link between nature, brainpower and happiness.
At the very least, all this California sunshine ensures that you will have plenty of Vitamin D.
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