Adapted from an article by Mari Ferrell
Do our children today have entire days to explore nature and enjoy the freedoms of the outdoors? Is unstructured outdoor play becoming a relic of the past?
Have you ever noticed the difference in your children's behavior when they are outdoors rather than cooped up inside? My childhood memories are filled with games of hide-and-seek, flashlight tag, making firefly lamps, building clubhouses, exploring the "woods" (vacant lot) near our house, and making things from the "clay" we found in the backyard. My mother and her brother tell stories of leaving their house every morning in the summer and not returning home until dusk. Their days included craw fishing in a nearby ditch, wading in Dry Creek, and building hideouts in the tall prairie grasses.
Do our children today have entire days to explore nature and enjoy the freedoms of the outdoors? Is unstructured outdoor play becoming a relic of the past? Evidence is mounting that points to the fact that children are spending more and more time indoors, disconnected from nature due to the pull of the TV, internet, or video games.
Outdoor play has a calming effect
In my own children I notice a marked difference in their personalities when they are able to enjoy the pleasures of outdoor play. I have always believed that children should spend as much time outside as possible, hearkening back to my teaching days when I was often the only teacher who took her students to the playground on cold and misty days. I never had a complaint about the kids' behavior inside as long as [I was sure] they had plenty of time outside. When things seemed to be getting crazy it was always a sign that they needed to get OUT! I have noticed that it works exactly the same with my own three kids.
Studies have indicated that exposure to green space and nature has an especially calming affect on children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Even adults benefit from time in nature, which has been shown to help with relaxation, stress reduction, and mental restoration.
Outdoor play is fun
This past summer at my daughter's birthday sleepover I had 12 girls ranging from six to eleven years old spending the night. My husband just happened to be out of town. I was a little concerned about doing this all by myself, so one of my good friends stayed for a couple of hours to help me out. Then she got to leave her kids with me and go out for a nice, quiet dinner with her husband. I was on my own. It was (understandably) wild and crazy inside my house. Cake crumbs and ice cream drippings covered the floor. I knew the best thing for everyone involved would be for all 12 kids to go in the backyard so I could have a moment to clean up the sticky mess. (Editor's note: Of course, keeping a close eye on the children from a window, or having an adult supervising the kids outside would be safest.)
For a full 15 minutes one or another of them kept knocking on the door. "When can we come in?" "I'm tired," "I'm bored out here," etc. They didn't seem too sure about the idea of being outside in the heat. Finally the kitchen was cleaned up and I was ready for the re-entry to occur. But wait—what was going on out there? I stealthily opened a shade and peeked outside. They had a frog and some paper birthday plates and bowls, sticks and leaves, and were building a frog mansion. The mansion became more and more elaborate over the next several hours and the frogs multiplied. There needed to be lots of rooms, you see. And a swimming pool complete with a diving board. …
Around 10 p.m. I forced them to come in. The frog mansion project ended up being the most talked-about event of the party.
Exposure to nature is crucial to human developmentThere is a growing amount of research that shows the importance of time spent in nature to human growth and development. Extensive evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health. When children do not have the experience of being outside, they are missing out on an important part of childhood. In his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv explains, "Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses."
We should not think of outdoor play as simply leisure time, but as something that is as necessary to our children's development as a balanced diet or a good night's sleep.
Time in nature helps:
Exercise when young builds the body for life
Studies are showing more and more that exercising seems to have a tremendous effect on human growth and development‚ most importantly when you are a little child, but also all the way up into your early 30s, and, of course, exercise is beneficial at any age. Some of the effects of exercise, such as bone growth, affect you for life, and can only be gotten when young.
It's believed that children who get insufficient physical activity and exercise may not grow to their full physical potential. It's a fact that exercise promotes growth on top of the growth which is derived from sleep and nutrition. Exercise is directly linked to the size and strength of a person's bones. Children who get good exercise grow more and have stronger bones than those who have less or no exercise.
Bones, like muscles, grow stronger with exercise. Bone growth stops around puberty or at 18–20 years; density and strength still increase until around 30–35 years. Exercise is the greatest stimulator of bone growth. Additionally, it's the bone strength gained during the first 35 or so years of life that either prevents or contributes to osteoporosis, and to overall strong or weak bones in later life.
What can you do?
Make an effort to increase time outdoors. Find ways to expose your children to nature and green spaces. [In the summer] this can be difficult to do in extreme heat, but sometimes just a hose and a few water balloons, a small kids pool or tub, buckets of water, and bubbles will suffice. A rock garden, vegetable garden, or animal habitat could be a wonderful addition to your backyard. Last summer we went for nature hikes and biked on the greenbelt in the cooler parts of the day, stopping to see interesting things along the way.
A growing body of literature shows that the natural environment has profound effects on the well-being of adults, including better psychological well-being, superior cognitive functioning, fewer physical ailments and speedier recovery from illness. It is widely accepted that the environment is likely to have a more profound effect on children due to their greater plasticity or vulnerability (Wells 2003).
Research is providing convincing evidence of the significant benefits of experiences in nature to children. Findings include:
William J. Bennett; book excerpt
All parents have solemn responsibilities for the education of their young, but nowhere are such duties weightier or more difficult than when a child has a disability. If yours does, or if you have observed a worrisome delay in his development, you are surely upset and at least a little bit confused. Some parents in this situation also find themselves feeling angry, guilty, and beleaguered. Here is how Patricia McGill Smith, director of the National Parent Council on Disabilities, describes these reactions:
When parents learn about any difficulty or problem in their child’s development, this information comes as a tremendous blow. The day my child was diagnosed as having a disability, I was devastated—and so confused that I recall little else about those first days other than the heartbreak…. Another parent describes the trauma as “having a knife stuck” in her heart.
Do not despair. You are in a difficult situation, one you did not seek or expect to be in, but much can be done. There are many sources of information and help. Millions of other parents who have trod this rocky road ahead of you are glad to offer guidance, encouragement, and assistance.
The next few pages will introduce you to this complex topic. Educating children with disabilities spans a host of issues, however, and we are able only to touch on a few key points. …
We begin with three general guidelines:
What Is “Special Education”?
The term “special education” means individualized instruction designed to meet the unique needs of students with physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, or learning-related disabilities. In other words, it is education for youngsters who have some sort of problem that hinders their ability to learn successfully in a regular classroom using conventional teaching approaches. There was a time in this country when children with disabilities did not get a good shot at a proper education. That began to change in 1975 (earlier in some states) with passage of federal legislation now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. This law requires school districts to provide “free appropriate public education” to children with disabilities and learning problems.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, about five and a half million children—approximately twelve out of every 100 students—are presently classified as disabled. For example, youngsters who have difficulty seeing, hearing, or walking might be categorized as having an educational disability. So might children with mental retardation, chronic illness, emotional disturbance, brain or spinal cord injury, genetic conditions such as Down syndrome, or serious social maladjustment. The key is that the child’s condition must interfere with his ability to learn.
“Disabilities” come in many different categories, often in combinations. Every youngster is a unique collection of capabilities and limitations. The idea of modern special education is to tailor an education program to the specific needs of a particular child, maximizing his strengths, compensating for (and where possible circumnavigating) his weaknesses. To the greatest degree appropriate to the child, he must be given access to the standard curriculum, helped to attain the academic standards of his school or state, and included in the life and activities of his school.
This can take some doing. If a child has a disability that affects his learning, placing him in a conventional classroom staffed only by a regular teacher may not work well. More is often needed. That may mean speech or occupational therapy, special tutoring, or medical assistance. It may involve physical accommodation (e.g., wheelchair access), special learning tools (e.g., Braille books and computers), or extra help (e.g., a nurse or classroom aide).
All this and more is possible in U.S. schools. Indeed, if your disabled child needs it for his education to succeed, he has a legal right to it, and you have the right to be involved in making these decisions.
Special ed is complicated and fraught with challenges. It is often controversial. (Those extra services, people, and equipment make a dent in the school system’s budget, and the federal and state dollars supplied for these purposes are rarely sufficient to cover the full costs.) From the parent’s standpoint, however, your job is to get the best education you can for your child. And that begins with an accurate evaluation of his situation.
Each exceptional child is different, of course, but here’s something that one such child might want to tell you—if they could.
Spend time getting to know me.
Please have patience with me. I may not be able to do the things another child can.
Enjoy learning about my special needs so that you will understand.
Care about what my parents or caregivers tell you about how I communicate.
Imagine your child having problems, then realize what my parents feel.
Always be kind to people who are disabled. We are just like you.
Listen to me. I may be hard to understand, but if you take the time, you can understand me.
Never blame my parents. They didn’t do anything wrong or cause me to be the way I am.
Encourage my parents and caregivers. They need it.
Entertain me, so that my parents or caregivers can have some time off.
Distraction is part of my daily life. I can’t sit still. I try, but I can’t.
Screaming is what I sometimes do when I can’t handle what is going on around me. I want to tell you what is wrong, but I can’t.
Courtesy of Motivated magazine. Used with permission.
By Claudia Becker, Die Welt, Feb. 15, 2013
BERLIN—There were jittery kids before Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In 1908, Berlin pediatrician Adalbert Czerny diagnosed a certain group of pesky children as follows: “Great need to move about, can’t stick to anything whether it be playing or other activities, disobedience, inability to concentrate on their schoolwork.”
So it would appear that ADHD is not an invention of the 21st century. Psychologists have been attributing the problem to ever more hectic daily lives marked by technological developments in both transportation and communication—since the beginning of the 20th century.
According to the just-released 2013 Medical Report published by the German Barmer GEK health insurance company, the number of children and teens diagnosed with ADHD rose by 42% between 2006 and 2011. We should not, however, rush to hasty conclusions blaming technology and ascribing the phenomenon to over-stimulation—even if it is difficult to imagine that the constant flicker of screens in children’s rooms, the over-consumption of computer games, and the permanent stream of music through headphones doesn’t have some sort of deeper impact on the nervous system.
The agitation, the lack of control over their impulses, and the concentration difficulties in children and teens that parents and teachers are becoming increasingly vocal about can be put down to a number things. Gottingen-based neurobiologist Gerald Huther believes that children have too few opportunities, as their brains develop, to build up the structures that enable them to control their impulses and deal with frustration.
Parents keep too close a watch over their kids for this to happen, he says—clearing problems away so kids don’t have to confront them, not giving kids a chance to try things for themselves, not letting kids romp around outdoors enough. They don’t let their kids take risks.
For the first time in the history of humanity, Huther says, we are going through a period where children are not actually needed to help with the household chores or go out and earn money. Yet children right through their teens need chores and other tasks because these tasks not only help them grow but give them the experience of how wonderful it is to do something meaningful together with others.
Anybody who has seen how many hours children spend playing computer games can sense the tragedy behind it—all that wasted energy—and understand how it can find expression in disharmony and aggression. And the open question is: are there really more children with behavioral symptoms matching those of ADHD or are doctors just more inclined to diagnose the disorder?
Even if the restless behavior of kids who supposedly have ADHD isn’t really pathological, the high number of children being diagnosed with the disorder tells us something about the way they are perceived by their parents and teachers—as so active that living with them may become unbearable.
But is it really the kids who are overstepping the bounds? Or are the thresholds of teachers trying to get through their workloads, and parents who expect their kids to “function,” too low? Have we lost the ability to deal with impulse? Particularly those of boys, who in kindergartens and schools are almost exclusively taught by women?
According to the Barmer GEK report, ADHD is mainly a problem with boys—the majority of whom are given psychotropic drugs. In 2011, 2% of 11-year-old girls diagnosed with the syndrome were taking what is currently the favorite drug for the condition—Ritalin, which acts directly on brain metabolism—compared with 7% of boys.
This is questionable not only because these kids are being kept quiet artificially, but also because the long-term effects of taking the drug have yet to be fully researched. Yet stressed-out parents are increasingly letting doctors talk them into treating their hyperactive children with medication on the pretext that they may be suffering from some sort of malfunction of brain metabolism.
Psychotropic drugs for children provide no long-term solution. ADHD is a disturbance in the ability to pay attention—so why don’t we actively try and heighten that ability in children from the beginning? It doesn’t take much: sit quietly on the sofa and read a story together instead of watching 3-D movies and playing computer games.
Or let your children take the time, as you make your way to the playground, to take in whatever captures his or her interest, be it a pebble or a dog, instead of badgering them with the constant and impatient command to “Come on!” And do you really need a weekend trip to Davos with your five-year-old just when the first snowdrops are blossoming in the garden?
Children need the opportunity to develop and hone their senses without being rushed all the time. And that includes doing a lot of the things that made 20th century childhoods rich and that are being lost today. A walk home from school without Mom, where they can dawdle along and have time for their own thoughts. At school, children should be given plenty of time for art and crafts.
Also important are family meals—not only eating together, but not eating microwave dishes, in fact eating real home cooking that doesn’t taste of the same old flavor enhancers but where you can actually make out the individual ingredients.
Children need to know that everything doesn’t have to happen at lightning speed. They need to be both challenged and supported. They also need to have the possibility of learning at their own speed: you cannot force maturity. And they need phases where they aren’t “doing” anything except maybe jumping over a few ditches, feeling the wind against their skin, breathing in the delicious smell of earth.
There are no greater creative moments than those that take place in stillness. We don’t let our kids enjoy these because we enjoy too few of them ourselves. But if they don’t know what it is to experience stillness, how can we expect them to “sit still?”