Kick ’em out! (Your kids, that is)

The following GGNC story appeared in the November 23 editions of The News & Observer in Raleigh and the Charlotte Observer. It’s rerun here, with links. For additional information about getting kids outside, visit yesterday’s post.

The virtues of kids being outdoors have been touted in a number of studies. But when it comes down to it, the proof is in the playing.

Mounting evidence shows our kids spend too much time hypnotized by the glow of electronic devices – an average of 6.5 hours a day, according to a recent University of Michigan study. Moreover, a study of 803 moms in one professional journal found 70 percent said they had played outside daily as kids, but only 31 percent of their own kids play outside that often.

The resulting damage is widespread, say health officials. It starts with an epidemic that now finds nearly 20 percent of U.S. youth obese and expands to everything from a lack of sunshine-provided Vitamin D to less creative stimulation.

The fretting grows. But how to get the kids off gizmos and out the door? Here’s how a park, a parent and a third-grade teacher managed.

A playground goes wild

This spring, the Mecklenburg County Park and Rec system opened its first nature play area at the Reedy Creek Nature Center. The Nature Explorer Zone is based on the Natural Learning Initiative movement, pioneered by N.C. State University professor of landscape architecture Robin Moore. It eschews traditional playground gear for simpler elements that encourage creative play.

“With standard manufactured playground equipment,” says Michael Kirschman, Mecklenburg’s director of Nature Preserves and Natural Resources, “kids play on it for 10 minutes, they master it, they get bored and move on. In terms of creative play, it’s not doing the job.”

The Nature Explorer Zone includes only one “built” feature, a giant birdhouse that kids can climb in and out of.

Kirschman says kids immediately are drawn to the birdhouse, but after a few minutes gravitate to more subtle features – tree stumps (for jumping on), bamboo poles (for building forts), vines for climbing on, a log balance beam – where their imaginations take over.

“It’s been really popular,” Reedy Creek manager Jose Chavez says of the zone. Since it opened, park visitation has gone up 30 percent.

“In my 20 years,” says Kirschman, “it’s the coolest thing I’ve seen in parks.”

A parent recalls the good old days

Spence March is typical of many modern parents: He wants his children to have the same outdoor adventures he had growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in a rural suburb outside Philadelphia.

But when his family moved to a new subdivision in Apex last year, he and his wife were reluctant to let their 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son experience that same sense of adventure.

It wasn’t so much the purported “stranger danger” often cited by many parents as the reason they don’t want their kids out of eyesight. (Duke University’s 2005 Child Well-Being Index found that “violent victimization of children” had dropped by more than 38 percent since 1975).

It was the traffic.

“Mainly, we just didn’t feel that the streets were safe,” says March, 47. “At this age, kids aren’t that great at looking both ways.”

So March turned their backyard into an outdoor playland, including a Frisbee target and tire swing.

And the family visits local parks and takes regular bike rides on the American Tobacco Trail, a nearly completed 22-mile rails-to-trails project in Wake, Chatham and Durham counties where the kids can ride free of traffic.

“They love it,” says March. “They love the freedom.”

Play = intellectual growth

Deborah Wuertz, a third-grade teacher in Holly Springs, saw firsthand the improved focus, mental sharpness and overall curiosity that resulted from a program she conducted over Take A Child Outside Week, a celebration of exploring the outdoors held this fall.

Wuertz issued each student a “Planet Earth Celebration” journal that included homework activities the kids could do, from spending 20 minutes outside sketching to standing outside and listening to nature, to examining the differences between leaves.

The children recorded their observations in a journal, working with their parents.

The experience had the hoped-for effect of turning the kids on to the outdoors.

“They’re so much more respectful of nature,” she says. “Now, if they see a bug in the classroom they don’t want to smash it, they want to get it outside.”

It also did what the studies suggested.

“They wrote more in their journals than they’ve ever written,” Wuertz said. “These were kids who did not like to write.”

As a result of their piqued curiosity, she says the walk outside for recess can take forever. “They always want to stop and show me stuff.”

And it’s made them want to learn more. “Before when they went to the library, they always checked out fiction books. Now, they’re getting nature and other nonfiction books.”

Perhaps most telling was how it skewed the kids’ take on homework.

Despite going out every day and making observations, despite going on the Internet and researching their findings and despite writing more than they had before, Wuertz says she heard one comment over and over:

“They said it was nice to have a week off from homework.”

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