Get kids back to nature

Summer holidays should mean freedom and the outdoors for kids

When I was a child, summer holidays meant freedom and the outdoors.

From the morning until late into the evening when the sun went down and our parents called us indoors, my friends and I created games and adventures for ourselves outside.

Whether we were practising our handstands and cartwheels, riding our bikes or teasing our brothers playing hockey in the streets, we breathed in the fresh air and let the sun bleach our hair and paint freckles on our noses.

I’m not sure if our parents were fully aware of all the mischief we got up to. We lived in the tree branches and easily scaled fences to explore the forest behind our townhouse complex. We played with fire, rescued baby birds and burned leaves with magnifying glasses.

Now, when I emerge from my air conditioned office and feel the summer sun on my face, I long for childhood and the outdoors.

But summer vacation means something quite different for today’s children it seems.

My younger siblings — 12 to 17 years my junior — spend much of their time indoors, which seems to be a pattern with their peers.

According to a 2011 report from Active Healthy Kids Canada, Canadian children are trading outdoor time for screen time. The report says that 73 per cent of parents say their children watch TV, read or play video or computer games after school instead of playing outside.

The report also says that 46 per cent of Canadian kids are getting three hours or less of active play time per week, including weekends and the report gives our nation’s youth an “F” grade for active play and leisure.

This trend is similar in other parts of the world as well. Britain’s National Trust recently released a report indicating that fewer than ten per cent of today’s children have played in a natural place compared to their parents. The National Trust has called this modern phenomenon “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

Part of the problem is the abundance of technological toys that hold kids’ attention indoors from iPads and iPods to Wii, Xbox, Netflix and the television. Parental fears have also become a barrier to outdoor play with potential danger from traffic, strangers and other sources.

While the National Trust study readily admits that the benefits of modern technology are many, it warns of consequences to this sedentary indoors lifestyle including a lack of engagement with nature, and health problems such as obesity and mental health problems.

This is not to say the situation is a lost cause — outdoor summer sports camps and summer reading programs get children out and away from the screens for a while — but there is plenty of room for improvement.

Parents, who I’m sure have fond memories of their own summers spent outside, need to facilitate this return to nature. Decrease the number of scheduled activities, limit the amount of screen time allowed each day, and give children access to outdoor spaces. If you’re not comfortable letting your children roam free, then take turns supervising children at a park or on the block.

But remember, no amount of vicarious living through the Suite Life of Zac and Cody or Phineas and Ferb can replace those real life twilight games of ‘kick the can,’ or ‘hide-and-seek.’

By Jade Swartzberg – Merritt Herald