Want to nurture a healthy, motivated student? Send your child outside for a daily dose of nature, say advocates of the No Child Left Inside movement.
Once the school year starts, kids tend to hibernate indoors, but studies suggest that giving children access to green spaces, sunlight and fresh air can do everything from reduce symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to improve mood and academic performance. Spending time in nature makes us feel more alive, according to research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology; some say this vitality can translate into increased motivation and capacity for learning.
Each day, try giving kids one hour of unstructured play in the natural world, suggests the National Wildlife Federation. For children who live in areas where unsupervised outdoor play isn't safe or accessible, a "green" hour can take place in a park, backyard, even on a porch.
Some tips to encourage outdoor play:
- Go with them. If you're excited about going outside, your kids will be, too, said Tanya Berry, a physical education researcher at the University of Alberta. She suggests limiting media use to reduce the pull from the indoors.
- Adopt something. Boys love picking up "treasures" (aka garbage) in the alleys, so consider signing up for an "adopt a beach" (or park, or creek, or road) cleanup program. Parks, forests, highways and yards all need cleaning up.
- Find an event. Children are enthusiastic detectives; check out local nature or ecology centers for scavenger hunts, which help develop problem-solving and visual-discrimination skills. Or try naturerocks.org to find activities close to home and tailored to your child's age.
- Get gadgets. Transform the yard by equipping your children with headlamps or flashlights and letting them explore at night. During the day, pitch a tent in the yard or give them a small magnifying glass to watch bugs and other creatures. Try binoculars and compasses, too.
- Create or join a family nature club. When families get together — to hike, garden or even take part in a stream reclamation — the kids tend to play more creatively by themselves or with others than during single-family outings, said Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods" (Algonquin, $14.95), who coined the phrase "nature-deficit disorder" to describe our modern disconnect with the natural world. The Children & Nature Network promotes nature clubs for families and has a free guide on how to start your own; go to childrenandnature.org.
- Play games. Create a backyard obstacle course and time each participant. Or play the alphabet game by finding letters hiding on the ground, in the trees or in the sky, suggests the National Wildlife Federation, which encourages outdoor activity in its Be Out There campaign (go to nwf.org). A branch can form a "y"; a blade of grass can be an "i." Have older children spell words.