Wellness: The Great Outdoors

Doctors suggest a simple prescription for childhood wellness: outdoor play and exercise.






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: Blount-Gowan, Marnie
Date published: April 11, 2012

"Go play outside" is a no-cost way for parents to help kids stay healthy. Outdoor play and exercise is a natural prescription for promoting childhood wellness, and spring is the perfect time to reconsider the benefits and wonders that await outside.

"Children need to play outside and in nature for a variety of reasons, most importantly to get fresh air and sunshine and take time to connect to nature in order to respect it and protect it," says Sandra Bargainnier, associate professor of exercise science at Syracuse University and coordinator of SU's health and physical education programs. "Children also need unstructured play with peers to learn skills such as compromise, negotiation and modification of games and activities."

Many children lead primarily sedentary indoor lifestyles. Outdoor play and exercise is fading from the American scene, while for Americans obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses are on the rise.

"Children should always be encouraged to spend as much time as possible outdoors, regardless of the time of the year," suggests Syracuse pediatrician Robert Dracker, "either to play or to learn more about the natural world we live in, not just the evolving electronic one that seems to be ever more consuming our attention,"

This disconnect between children and nature, humans and habitat has been called "nature-deficit disorder," coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature- Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2008). Louv maintains that certain behavioral problems could be caused by the recent sharp decline in how little time children spend outdoors.

"Outdoor play is incredibly important for children. Unstructured time outside provides kids the opportunity to get to know the natural world around them through exploration and observation," explains Valerie Luzadis, Ph.D., professor of forest policy and economics and chair of the department of environmental studies at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. "Understanding oneself within the context of the weather is just one small and important example. Learning what a storm sky looks like, or that when the wind blows so you can see the backs of the leaves, it means a storm is coming-this happens outside."

Since children spend most of their day and most of the year at school, recess time is an opportunity for outdoor recreation and connecting with nature. "I would love to see elementary schools taking 20 minutes each morning, before they even take off their coats, and go outside," adds Bargainnier.

The idea that school recess time provides a critical change of pace and a recharging of energy for learning is supported by the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, begun in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Education. Children in the groups that had recess registered better behavioral scores than the group that had no or minimal recess. Students were also better able to focus on assigned tasks after the break.

Unfortunately, in the Syracuse City School District, there is no written rule regarding recess. "There is not a district policy related to recess in grades kindergarten through eighth outside of physical education classes," says Christian Hodge, supervising director of physical education and health for the SCSD. "Most schools have recess around the scheduling of the specific teacher." He adds that SCSD recently held teacher training in physical activity programs that can be incorporated into classroom lessons.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends free and unstructured play as essential for children to develop social, emotional and thinking skills. Play helps children learn to manage stressful situations, problem-solve with peers and develop personal resiliency when they encounter playground-based challenges. For inner-city children in high-risk neighborhoods, outdoor play at school can further provide a safe way to get outdoor exercise.

"Obviously, the exposure to outside air and sun has a number of health benefits, including improvements in cardiovascular function and the natural production of vitamin D3 synthesis in our skin from sun exposure," explains Dracker. "Sunlight exposure is particularly important for our geographic location, considering the limited sunshine and seasonal variations. Vitamin D is necessary for bone production, and immune and neurologic function. Many studies have also demonstrated the 'soft' health benefits of outdoor activity, including reducing mood disorders, stress reduction and improvements in diet and sleep patterns."

Active children are also more likely to become active adults. And children raised with an understanding of nature are more likely to want to learn about the natural world and thus protect it.

"{Outdoor} exploration, observation and curiosity provide a strong foundation for science literacy," explains Luzadis. "Students in natural resources college programs very frequently point to outdoor experiences as kids-camping with parents and summer camp in rural areas-as the things that caused them to choose a science track in college. Syracuse, being a designated Tree City USA, is a great place for kids to be outside. We are lucky to have wonderful neighborhood parks that provide space for kids to explore and be outside."

Growing up on the South Side of Syracuse, I remember exploring our back yard and going for family drives in the country. We might pull over to look at a trout stream, pick berries or learn the difference between butternuts and hickory nuts. We were encouraged to be outside, no matter what the season, and that behavior got passed down. My daughter was the primary organizer of neighborhood kickball games and our son would take off down the street with a soccer ball looking for a friend to kick it around. The point was to get outside and enjoy it.

"Who knew that grass, leaves, leaf stems and small, dry twigs could become proxies for play food in an outdoor kitchen?" relates Luzadis. "One summer my 11-year-old daughter and her friend spent hours in our yards here in Syracuse creating the most scrumptious-looking fake food items from nature. It was amazing, the level of creativity."

While parental involvement is key, it often doesn't take place. "Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for parents to not have enough time to be outdoors with their children," says Draker. "However, simple approaches, such as walks, picnics or nature trails, can become opportunities for healthy behaviors, open discussion with your children and improvements in your relationships. We sometimes forget the liberating benefits of getting out of the house or apartment and just taking a deep breath, smelling the air and listening to the sounds of our world."

Both the Syracuse and Onondaga County parks departments offer public greenspaces and a variety of outdoor family activities throughout the year. On Saturday, April 14, 9:30 a.m., Beaver Lake Nature Center, 8477 E. Mud Lake Road, Baldwinsville, will offer a Young Birders event for kids ages 10 to 16. "Go Fish" at Carpenter's Brook Fish Hatchery, 1672 Route 321, Elbridge, offers public angling on Saturdays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. through May 26. Consult parkscalendar. com and the Outings section of The New Times' Times Table section for details and other activities.

Author affiliation:

Marnie Blount-Gowan is a member of the Crouse Hospital Integrative Health Alliance, Mind Body Health instructor and editor of Realewell.com.

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