Posts tagged ‘Nature Play’

March 26, 2013

You Might Want to Sit Down for This…

by Melissa Harding

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It can be easy to spend most of the day sitting: drive to work, sit at your desk, drive home, sit at home. This is especially true in the winter, when cold temperatures make us feel sluggish, like hibernating bears. Even though it can be wonderfully relaxing to spend the evening hours reading a good book or watching a movie, it may actually be doing more harm than good. The phrase “sitting is the new smoking” is a buzzword in the health community, where more and more research is being done on what has been dubbed “the pandemic of inactivity”. Richard Louv, nature writer, advocate and director of the Children and Nature Network, has just published a short article compiling some recent findings. The results may just shock you right out of your seat.

The average American sits 9.3 hours every day. Out of 24 hours in a day, minus the average 7.7 hours for sleeping, we spend over half of our waking hours on our bottoms. Children, who often do not have control over their actions, have it even tougher. While adults can take a break to walk up and down the halls, take a walking meeting or do some stretching, children are expected to sit still for their entire day at school. Even going to the bathroom requires permission and a hallpass. Although some schools try to get kids moving, time spent in recess is a small portion of the day. That is not to mention the fact that even after work or school many of us spend our leisure time sitting in front of screens. Sitting is so pervasive and natural to us that we don’t question how much of it we should be doing.

So why is all of this sitting a problem? Recently The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, published a series of reports that confirm physical inactivity is a leading risk factor for deaths due to non-communicable diseases.  According to the New York Times, an Australian study found that for each additional hour of television watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent.  Excessive sitting, which the study defines as nine hours a day, is a lethal activity.

While it may seem so, exercise is not the antidote to sitting. When a person is sitting, electrical activity in his muscles drops, which leads to harmful metabolic effects. His calorie-burning rate drops to about one per minute, a third of what it is walking. Insulin effectiveness drops within a single day, and the risk of developing diabetes and obesity rises. This adds up over a lifetime. According to Harold “Bill” Kohl, professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health, “Although regular physical activity is critical for weight control, it is equally or more important for lowering risk of many different chronic diseases such as heart disease, some cancers, osteoporosis and diabetes.”

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Fortunately, there is a solution in sight for all of us: being outside. Nature-based exercise is good for adults and nature-based play is good for children. Some pediatricians and mental health professionals are now prescribing “green exercise” in parks and other natural settings. All this means is that kids should be engaging in more simple outdoor play, climbing trees and playing with sticks. Now that spring is around the corner, it is even easier to find fun things to do outside; planting seeds, stomping in mud puddles and hunting for blooming flowers are great April activities. No matter what outdoor activity sounds fun to you and your family, doing it together will help you stay healthier and more connected to nature.

Here are some resources to get both you and your child more active outside:
Nature Rocks: Find local natural areas, get ideas for fun outdoor activities and connect to other nature lovers
Children and Nature Natural Families Network: Learn how to start a nature club for kids and connect to other parents
Richard Louv’s Resource Supplement to Last Child in the Woods: Outdoor activities, book suggestions and helpful links
Simple Kids: Simple activity ideas to help your child explore the natural world
Home Connections: Try some of our ideas to combine outdoor exploration with fun activities

To learn more about how sitting effects your health, read the rest of Richard Louv’s article at the Children and Nature Network and check out the links to his sources scattered throughout this post.

The above photos are courtesy of brietbart.com via Google Images and Christie Lawry.

August 29, 2012

Should We Minimize Risk in Environmental Education?

by Melissa Harding

Much has been made recently of “risk-averse” nature play. From David Sobel’s article Look, Don’t Touch to Ken Finch’s But…Isn’t It Dangerous?, bloggers, authors and parents alike have been concerned about the state of outdoor play at both nature centers and schools. Many of these authors feel that creating risk-averse environments for children, especially during what has traditionally been messy and unstructured outdoor play, is both detrimental to the development of children and distorts their view of nature.

For Ken Finch, founder and president of The Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood, nature play is meant to be risky. Children may be injured, but that is not always a bad thing. Children may always be injured as they learn how to manage themselves in an environment with inherent risks, whether it is determining how high they should climb or whether a rock is slippery. However, children need to learn to manage risk in their lives; the inherent risk in outdoor play is no reason to keep children from engaging in the outdoors. Finch argues that without taking risks no child would ever learn to walk or ride a bike, let alone learn to manage the complexity of an adult life.

All of this seems to point to how we perceive the amount of risk inherent in a situation. Human beings are very poor at judging risk. We base our perceptions of risk more on emotion and instinct than fact and reason (Source). This is the same mindset that makes us more afraid of sharks than driving a car; a car accident is statistically much more likely than a shark attack (Source), yet many people drive all the time and are afraid of the ocean. Maybe our fear of risk, yet proven inability to correctly assess it, is part of the problem; maybe nature play isn’t as risky as we think.

For Finch,  valuable learning occurs when children are allowed to play away from adults and without structure. Nature can be a testing ground where children use their imaginations to act out conquests and challenges. This is what many adults remember from their own childhoods, yet are afraid to let their children experience. Finch argues for the use of comparative risk; the risk of letting children play in nature is far less than the risk of keeping them away from it. He fears that this current culture will create children who find nature boring and restrictive, seeing no need to care for it. His solution, allowing risk but managing clear hazards, allows children to feel unhampered by rules yet still be safe from real injury.

David Sobel has a similar argument; he feels that the joy of children exploring the world on their own terms is no longer allowed. He takes environmental education to task, citing its “look, don’t touch” mentality as a stumbling block to its true goal of reconnecting children to nature in a meaningful way. He also cites a number of programs that celebrate wild nature play and accept risk as part of the deal.

Finally, Kay Wyma of the New York Times’ Motherlode column, talks about an experience her son had climbing trees. A well-intentioned neighbor admonished her child for climbing and asked her “What if he falls?”. The answer to that question, that he would learn his boundaries, is the basis of her column. She argues that children need to learn to do for themselves, to learn boundaries, and maybe even to fail and fall a little – even, or maybe especially, outside.

Taken all together, where do these articles put us?

I’m not sure. As an educator, I feel very strongly that we need to make nature more accessible to our students. Without hands-on experiences, I fear our students will see ecology as dry and boring instead of exciting and teeming with life. However, I also understand the natural desire to minimize risk; no one wants to see any child hurt.

So this is where we can all draw our own conclusions.  I encourage you to read all of the articles and opinions cited here, as well as find your own. Whatever the answer is, we all need to work together to ensure that our children are given the ability to bond with nature and fall in love with it. That way, there is someone left to preserve it.

The above picture is taken by Christie Lawry.

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