Healthy kids start with outdoor play

In parents’ desire for safety, they start their children on a lifelong habit of sedentary behavior

Is a child who enjoys old fashioned play getting an edge over the other children?

Is a child who enjoys old fashioned play getting an edge over the other children?

Tim Hauserman wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children, and the official guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail.

If you are at least 40 years old you probably spent much of your childhood playing football in the street, or wandering aimlessly around in the forest searching for dragons. Parents were creatures that you saw at night who asked you how your day went (and whether you did your chores), but for much of the day they were out of sight and out of mind. It was a lifestyle that required imagination, self-responsibility and the physical stamina necessary to spend the day playing at full speed. And it helped you to develop the skills to become a well adjusted adult.

What happened? Why did the same people who lived independent childhoods become parents who are determined to make their kids live lives surrounded by safety-first bubbles? Why are those of us who fondly remember our childhoods playing in the wilderness so bent on keeping our own kids under constant supervision?

Richard Louv, in Last Child in the Woods says what happened is that “our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature. Public school systems, media and parents are effectively scaring children right out of the woods.” Louv says the result is what he calls “Nature Deficit Disorder,” which he claims leads to attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.

In fact, the lack of connection between humans and nature has even spawned a whole new field: Ecopsychology, which, according to Wikipedia, “seeks to develop and understand ways of expanding the emotional connection between individuals and the natural world.”

So why are we so afraid to let our children get wild in the wild? Lenore Skenazy wrote Free Range Kids and has begun a movement of parents who are pushing for kids to have the opportunity to play again. She says that we have developed a worst-first mentality. We have come to believe that if anything bad happens to any kid anywhere it could happen to mine … so I better not risk it. She believes that the phrase “safety first” has come to mean “safety only.” This leads us to be so afraid of the one-in-a-million possibility of something bad happening that we keep millions of kids from leading healthier, happier lives. Fear is keeping kids indoors, or in some sort of structured sport programs packed full of rules and procedures.

We need to take a step back and remember what we were capable of doing ourselves when we were 10 years old. “Our view of what children can do and figure out and survive is at its utter nadir. We can’t imagine them not hurting themselves in a vacant lot, much less finding their way around the neighborhood without a trusted adult,” says Skenazy. In the past, a 10-year-old was perfectly capable of doing many of the things we don’t trust 18-year-olds to do now. Parents who were successfully babysitting when they were 13, are now afraid to let their own kids be alone at that age.

Those who protect children at all costs, are ready to use the government or lawyers to take on anyone who dares to do anything that might hurt their precious charges. Schools and government organizations are forced to cover their butts with so many safety rules for any outdoor activity that it takes away from the fun, the adventure and perhaps most importantly, the spontaneity, which is what builds imagination and self-confidence.

Missy Mohler, executive director of the Sierra Watershed Environmental Partnerships in Tahoe City says that while her organization takes hundreds of children out into the woods to study ecosystems, “All those rules get in the way of what we can do with the schools.” It limits the chance for kids to use their imaginations to help develop a healthy interest in natural science.

Parents are certainly not afraid to shame other parents who have the nerve to actually want their kids to experience some of the freedoms that they did. Unfortunately, the commonly used phrases: “Aren’t you worried that (the fear of the day) will happen to them?” or the ever popular “I would never let my kid do that,” have a chilling impact on parents.

Are you ready to get off the helicopter merry go round and set your kids free to find a connection with nature? Try these ideas:

»Think about the things you did as a child and why you will not let your child do them today. Are these realistic fears or overblown paranoia by exposure to the media and the fear mongering society? For example, were you aware that the crime rate is actually lower now then when we were kids?

»Make the time to get your children into nature. You can begin by taking a walk along the river, letting them explore while you stay a comfortable distance away. Then let them play with friends in the woods or mountains within shouting distance. Next, how about taking on a three day backpack trip? Find a beautiful spot, arrange for plenty of down time, leave the technology at home or turned off. Live life without a game plan, and let your child’s imagination go free.

»Allow your kids to fail in situations where there is little danger, this is how they grow and learn. True self-esteem comes from completing a tough task successfully, not by being patted on the back for just participating.

»Talk to a parent from another country and discover that in many parts of the world, children actually do responsible things and take care of themselves.

When I look back at raising my now-25 and 22 year old daughters, I realize without a doubt that the best experiences we ever had together were our backpacking trips. Those trips not only assisted in the parent-child bonding process, but helped my daughters in their journey to become more independent and capable of taking care of themselves. While it is often forgotten now, our most important job as parents is helping to create children who are actually capable of functioning on their own by the time they leave the house.