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Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007 03:38 pm

Getting children outdoors

Gardening can be a way to unplug your kids

Untitled Document It’s hard to believe that children have returned to school and another summer vacation has met its end. As I reflect on this summer, I wonder what my children will remember about the past 11 weeks. They spent most mornings playing in the back yard and the afternoons playing video games and watching television. Evenings and weekends were spent scurrying from one organized activity to another. Gone are the days when it was acceptable to play all day. I recall that as a child we only had three television channels (with few children’s programs), no electronic games, no computer, and no video games. In the past 20 years, electronic-media choices have exploded. Although electronic media have some benefits, children are spending more time indoors and less time engaging in unstructured play. According to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of nearly 6.5 hours a day with electronic media (television, movies, computer, and video games). I have started reading Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, a bestselling book by Richard Louv that explores the widening divide between children and the outdoors. The Children & Nature Network has also highlighted several research and studies about the benefits to children and youth of experiences in nature. In response to this information and out of concern that we may be raising the first generation of “indoor children” — a generation of children who are disconnected from nature — children’s advocates, environmentalists, teachers, nonprofit agencies, and political leaders are starting a national grassroots initiative called “Leave No Child Inside.”
The National Wildlife Federation is working to reverse the trend by encouraging adults to give children a “green hour,” time for “unstructured play and interaction with the natural world,” each day. Go to www.greenhour.org to see and share ideas on how to spend time in the outdoors. Several states have joined the movement, encouraging schools to add curricula involving outdoor activities. U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., recently introduced the “No Child Left Inside” bill, which would amend the No Child Left Behind law to provide new federal funding for environmental education. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a report, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” that promotes the idea that “play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” Many children take part in scheduled activities, giving them less time for free play. Even at school, most children have less free time and fewer physical activities. Although the appropriate balance of play, academics and organized activities for children is not clear, it is clear that children derive developmental benefits from play.
Getting our children outdoors should be a goal of families, educators, and the community. We all need to make more time for play. Let’s get out and bike, hike, walk, swim, canoe, play at the beach, garden, play on a swing set, catch bugs, or make a mud pie. Gardening with a child is a great way to learn and grow together. Jane L. Taylor, founder of the Michigan 4-H Children’s Garden, will present a program, “Bringing Magical Elements into a Garden for Kids,” 6:30-8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5. Taylor will examine some ideas to enhance, enrich, educate, excite, and entertain kids in the garden for their enjoyment, for their eating pleasure, and for the environment. This is a great opportunity for parents and teachers to hear a nationally known children’s gardening consultant share her ideas about what makes a garden a great experience for a child. The program is sponsored by the University of Illinois Extension and will be held in the extension’s building at the state fairgrounds. The cost is $10, and advance registration is encouraged. Make your check payable to the University of Illinois Extension and mail it the Sangamon-Menard Unit, 2501 N. Eighth St., Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, 62702. For more information, call 217-782-4617.
Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon. 
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