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North Hills Monthly

Children Healthier, Happier When They Spend Time Outdoors

Apr 30, 2019 10:52AM ● By Kathleen Ganster

Photo provided by Amy Nelson

There are more overweight children in the United States than ever before. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly one in every five children is obese. One reason for this alarming statistic is that children are inactive. According to the Child Mind Institute, kids in the U.S. spend an average of four to seven minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play—compared to seven or more hours in front of a screen.

This increased screen time is a concern for Amy Nelson of McCandless. Nelson, who often played outside in the woods as a child, has worked hard with her husband to instill their love of nature into their daughter, Vivienne, 8.

“We simply boycott the TV at our house. If playing outside becomes an integral part of my child’s life, screen time becomes less of a necessity or a priority,” she said.

As a family, the Nelsons go camping, and they center family vacations around locations with lots of nature activities. They also encourage Vivienne to play outside with friends.

“It’s a wholesome activity and leads to an appreciation of nature that ultimately can help with stress reduction and happiness. Plus, playing outside builds confidence,” said Nelson. “Whether it’s climbing a tree—which my daughter enjoys—or building a fort in the woods, there’s a sense of achievement a child gains from these types of activities.”

Indeed, there are many benefits for children who spend time outside and in nature. In addition to building confidence and healthier bodies, it assists with cognitive and emotional development, social skills and sensory skills, increases attention spans and helps children simply be happier overall, according to SanfordHealth.org.

For Nelson, there is another huge benefit. “Playing outside transcends gender; boys and girls can play in the woods without the stereotypical ‘branding’ we see in toy marketing,” she said.

“I think it’s important for girls and boys to play together, as it broadens the horizons of the children’s viewpoints of the opposite sex and allows for an equality that is lost when you segregate girls from boys,” she added.

Michael Ewing of Ross also encourages his two children, 13 and 9, to spend time outdoors.

“I’m interested in allowing my children to be outside exploring nature in an unstructured environment; I believe this allows them to create their own guidelines and boundaries,” he explained. “Over time, it also allows them to push through those set boundaries and discover new levels of adventure.”

Ewing allows his children to select what they do. “When they get to choose the outdoor activities, it alleviates any fear they may have to try something new. In a sense, they take ownership in the activity,” he said.

In the past, Ewing’s children have experienced trail running, camping, kayaking and hiking.

While Nelson and Ewing encourage unstructured outdoor time, they also encourage their children to participate in events through North Park Trail Runners (NPTR), where they are members.

“By hosting Kids’ Run events, we expose our children to trail running in a fun environment with other kids. We encourage them to walk when they’re tired and to focus on having fun,” Nelson said.

Events, camps and programs are good methods to help introduce children to outdoor activities. The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania offers classes for children as young as toddlers, according to Communications Director Rachel Handel.

“These allow the children to get outside—often in a baby backpack or with their parents carrying them—on a short hike, and include craft and story time. As kids grow older, we offer longer hikes and summer camps and classes that help to build their connection to nature,” Handel said. 

The grounds at Audubon’s Beechwood Farm in Indiana Township, including its ponds and trails for exploring, are designed to encourage outdoor time.

“DiscoverGround has become a favorite place for families to bring their children to dig in the dirt, run races, build and climb in an environment full of trees, logs, plants, and of course, birds,” Handel said.

For Yu-Ling Cheng Behr of Ohio Township, engaging children outdoors is both personal and professional. As the mother of 7- and 5-year-old daughters, Cheng enjoys spending time with them outside.

“We talk about how we're going on an adventure! It's a time to explore new places, use our imagination and get fresh air,” she said.

Through her work with Remake Learning Days and Kidsburgh, she helps promote activities for families. “For more outdoor learning ideas, take a look at Remake Learning Days,” she advised. “There are more than 30 outdoor learning events planned between May 9-19 for youth of all ages.”

It may be hard to get some children outside. Allowing children to help select the activities helps, as does targeting activities geared to a child’s own interests.

“I think for all youth, it's important to connect what they're going to do to something meaningful and relevant to them,” said Cheng. “If they like adventure, try something new outdoors, whether that’s a new sport or a new learning event. If they like using technology, then find something outdoors that incorporates tech like geocaching.”