Nature Deficit Disorder. Leave No Child Inside. De-natured Childhood. Free Range Kids. What is your reaction to these phrases and slogans?
Experts agree: children (and adults) are spending less time outside. Screen time is on the rise, after-school and weekend time is increasingly structured, and many families lack access to outdoor spaces that feel safe and fun. For me, and the children’s programs I run, the phrases above provide a framework to justify a focus on outdoor play. These new terms, and their emphasis on the importance of getting children out into nature, are backed up with rigorous research. It turns out children need to play, adventure, relax, work and learn in natural spaces to develop into healthy, whole adults.
Though physical health is one of the most obvious benefits of playing outdoors, the more subtle benefits add up into a very long list: improved cognitive functioning and development, increased self esteem, more motivation, improved problem solving, encouragement of inventiveness and creativity, cooperation, increased attention spans, and psychological well-being.
Luckily, Charlotters have access to remarkable outdoor spaces. Most have large yards where children can play safely within shouting range of the house. A garden, wetland, stream, field and forest border our school. Mt. Philo State Park offers family-friendly hiking and picnicking opportunities. The shores of Lake Champlain offer endless treasure hunting, exploring and swimming opportunities. And don’t forget public and backyard gardens and farms to tend and visit!
Gardens, in fact, provide children with a surprising multitude of opportunities to work, learn and play in nature. School gardens draw classrooms outside for hands-on learning and community service. Vegetable gardens at home give families an opportunity to work together to grow and share nourishing food. Gardens are beautiful, lush miniature ecosystems. They can be just the right scale for children to discover the magic of life cycles, ecosystems, patterns, colors, teamwork, artistry, engineering challenges, flavors and smells. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The school gardens at Charlotte Central School have been expanding. Nestled between the Pease Mountain trailhead and the lower parking lot, the CCS Kitchen Garden is home to raised beds, a perennial herb garden, pumpkin and potato patches, the school’s compost shed and an outdoor classroom. It is a truly lush, colorful, buzzing and delicious place to be—especially in the summer.
When planning summer vacation, families should remember to include plenty of free time outside. For parents who work, make sure to select summer programs that encourage free play, outdoor expeditions, opportunities to garden and plenty of running around. Consider where you get your food: visiting a local farm or signing up for a CSA can be a great way to get outside as a family and connect with the source of your food. The best part of committing to increased time outside for your children? You can join them and enjoy the benefits to your physical and emotional health as well!
Tai Dinnan lives in Charlotte and is the director of the Extended Day Programming and the Turtle Lane Art and Nature Camp at Lake Champlain Waldorf School in Shelburne. She also works with Stacy Carter to run the Charlotte Green Thumbs Summer Camp—a daytime gardening camp for kids in late-June and early-August. For more information about the camp, email CCSGreenThumbs@gmail.com. Tai blogs at growingstories.wordpress.com
Learn more about each of the camps I’m running this summer: