No child left inside

Independent play. Outside. Every day

by Kristen Wicker

Photo: Children play outside at Possum Creek MetroPark

Seven hours. Every day.

This is the average number of daily hours children ages 8 to 18 spend in front of a screen or an audio player, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The Children and Nature Network found only 6 percent of children ages 9 to 13 play outside on their own.

The result: An effect dubbed “nature deficit disorder” by Richard Louv, co-founder of the national nonprofit Children & Nature Network. It’s outlined in his influential book, “Last Child in the Woods,” which pointed out the disconnect between families and nature.

One anecdote: The fourth annual Miami Valley Leave No Child Inside Summit, held from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, at Wegerzyn Gardens MetroPark, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave. Anyone who’d like to join local efforts to increase access to nature for children and families will come away with a renewed energy for this work, specific action steps and knowledge of best practices, and new resources and connections for getting it done.

“Kids are hungry to discover more about nature,” said Doug Horvath, an education supervisor for Five Rivers MetroParks. “Independent outdoor play allows children to become builders, engage in more imaginative play, and helps make them healthier and smarter.”

Indeed, research by the Children & Nature Network and other organizations has found children gain many benefits from frequent and varied opportunities for free and unstructured play outdoors. Such play allows children to develop their creative muscles at their own pace. Nature is always changing, providing new learning opportunities. Meeting such challenges as climbing a tree or crossing a stream can build confidence and self-esteem. Plus, children are more physically active while outdoors.

Parents, of course, are some of the most effective advocates for children’s outdoor play — as are other kids. New to the summit this year, parents and children will join the event at 2:30 p.m. for an afternoon of discovering and playing in nature. Part of a Nature Club for Families program, they will learn how families can explore parks and enjoy nature together and help summit participants create effective ways to engage more children and families with nature.

“We hope to help create a form of civic leaders, only on a family scale,” Horvath said. “They can create groups for getting outside with families that live near them.”

Five Rivers MetroParks is one of several partners in the Miami Valley Leave No Child Inside Network, host of the summit. For more information on local and statewide efforts, visit ohiolnci.org.

In addition to the summit, families can visit Five Rivers MetroParks’ nature play areas at Hills & Dales, Sugarcreek, Englewood, Possum Creek and Wegerzyn Gardens MetroParks, as well as at Adventure Central at Wesleyan MetroPark. At these play areas, children are encouraged to independently explore nature: to gather sticks and build a fort, turn over rocks in the creek and look for critters, and jump on logs and dig in the mud.

Indeed, Five Rivers MetroParks’ leadership in creating nature play areas led it to be a key player in the development of national guidelines. Released this past fall by the National Wildlife Federation and Natural Learning Initiative, the guidelines help communities create nature play areas and outdoor learning places. Five Rivers MetroParks is one of 20 national organizations that participated.

“Playing outdoors in nature gives children the chance to develop a connection with nature and wildlife and is good for their overall well-being,” said Kevin Coyle, vice president for education and training at the National Wildlife Federation. “These guidelines make it easier to incorporate nature play environments in every playground, schoolyard and childcare center.”

The guidelines note that nature play areas aren’t just for parks: Creating one can be as simple as laying a sheet of plywood in your yard so children can look under it to see critters or putting out sand children can dig in.

“Give kids more ownership of the backyard,” said Joshua York, an education supervisor for Five Rivers MetroParks. “Designate an area for each child to use. Allow them to garden, dig, grow, build — do whatever he or she wants. Have children think of it as their own personal ‘outdoor room’ to do what they can’t do inside the house. You can even make up a play deed for the piece of land and give it to the child to have him or her feel more responsibility and ownership.

“Then, when birthdays and holidays roll around, give nature-oriented gifts you don’t need to plug in,” York added. “Instead, give children a magnifying glass, butterfly net, bug jar or other items that add to their outdoor experience.”

To download and read the full text of the Nature Play & Learning Places guidelines, visit natureplayandlearning.org.

“As a conservation agency, it’s critical Five Rivers MetroParks provide outdoor experiences that inspire youth and families to have a personal connection with nature so they value the woods and open spaces,” Horvath said. “There is no better teacher than mother nature. The more we can spread the message and facilitate locations for children to explore, the more we help to inspire them to find a connection with nature.”

The fourth annual Miami Valley Leave No Child Inside Summit will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, at Wegerzyn Gardens MetroPark, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave. Registration is required for the Miami Valley Leave No Child Inside Summit (program L10) and afternoon Nature Club for Families program (program M144). For more information, please call 937.275.7275 or visit metroparks.org. Participants should come dressed to explore the outdoors.

Reach DCP freelance writer Kristen Wicker at KristenWicker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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