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Throw Those Kids Outside!

I am not what you would call an outdoor person and yet some of my most treasured memories took place outside. My sister and I spent all of our waking hours running around our street, biking, playing games, or hanging out at the playground around the corner. We used leaves, sticks, and flowers as props. We drew pictures with chalk, played hopscotch, and had secret clubs.

During the summer we got sunburned and bug-bitten and drank out of the hose when we were thirsty. In the winter we played outside until our noses were pink and our mittens were covered in mini snowballs. In short, we had a lot of fun without spending a dime. My mother, I’m sure, didn’t realize she was following the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation to encourage children to play outside as much as possible. She didn’t know she was helping to battle childhood obesity. She just thought that kids should run and play.

A new study from the Seattle Children’s Research Institute found that — if I was a child today — my mother would be in the minority. According to the study, “nearly half of preschoolers in a sample representing four million U.S. children did not have even one parent-supervised outdoor play opportunity per day.” The study, “The frequency of parent-supervised outdoor play of U.S. preschool age children,” was published last week in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine.

There were a few interesting stats in the study. For instance, girls were less likely to spend time outdoors playing. Also, when kids do go outside it’s mostly mothers that are taking them. According to researchers, 44 percent of mothers report taking kids outside daily compared to only about a quarter (24 percent) of dads. Really scary: 15 percent of moms and 30 percent of dads didn’t take their kids outside even a few times per week. Kids of gym rats are luckier than the rest since their parents make outdoor play a priority. Mothers who exercised regularly (more than four times a week) were 50 percent more likely to take their child outside daily than those who never hit the gym.

One of the authors of the study, Pooja S. Tandon, M.D., wrote an excellent blog post about the research and about her own children. In the post, Resurrecting Outdoor Play Time, she explains that kids in many European countries spend three or four hours outside daily, which sounds a lot like my childhood. She also provides a few ideas to get kids outside more often. Here’s one thing she didn’t include: Don’t worry about having an activity or “something to do.” Kids, when given the chance, will find something to do.

Yesterday, while I worked my babysitter took the kids outside. The kids decided to go on a rock hunt, finding 20 different rocks in the backyard. Then they played a spy game, lurking behind trees while talking into pretend walkie talkies. Finally, they had running races, which my Big Girl won every time. I heard about it all when we were eating dinner together. (Another old fashioned habit that needs a revival!) Even though I wasn’t with them today, I know they made some memories that they will always remember. And that’s a good thing — body, mind, and soul.

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