My parents likely didn’t set out to raise a kid who wanted to be outdoors – it just came natural for them. My dad had a garden, and my mom “put up” everything that was harvested. I, of course, was expected to help, not only with the garden but with the beehives on our property near the adjacent cotton fields in rural Tennessee. We were outside a lot.
Those are fond memories, of course, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy the humid days in the South. But somewhere along there, I learned to enjoy being outside.
I’m now a father, and I’m trying to instill into my three children an even greater love for nature – God’s creation – than I had at their age.
But these are challenging times. A British survey showed that children today spend 10 times more hours watching TV than they do playing outdoors. Another poll showed that only 40 percent of children would rather play outside than inside.
Video games and electronics are a big culprit. Another is decreased open space in urban areas. I’ve begun reading Richard Louv’s 2005 book “Last Child In The Woods,” which examines how we can save our children from what he calls “Nature Deficit Disorder.” His book has me wondering: What can we as parents do to keep our children from becoming indoor hermits?
Our oldest child loves being outdoors, and we hope to instill that same passion into his two siblings.
Here are nine ideas that worked for us, and just might work for you, too:
1. Realize that there is a theological component involved. God’s creation reflects His glory, and He expects us to spend some time outside, in it. God created that majestic mountain, that beautiful lake, and that wonderful tree (right outside your door) for a reason. They are all to remind us that there is a Creator – a Creator who loves us. God, though, isn’t pushing us, kicking and screaming, out the door of our house. His creation is far better than anything indoors that is man-made, and we are naturally drawn to it – partially because we, too, were created by God, and He made us tenants over the earth. This idea alone has driven me.
2. Understand that you don’t have to go to Yosemite or Yellowstone — and you don’t need a big yard. That small yard will work just fine. And if you don’t have that, visit that city or state park down the road. Through the eyes of a child, that small yard and that tiny park are probably huge. Children don’t need a lot of room. Digging in the dirt, climbing a tree, and looking for bugs under rocks are fun kid activities. One reason being outdoors is so fun is that it is seemingly infinite. Even if there’s a fence, there’s no constricting ceiling or floor. Just blue skies and green grass. (OhRanger.com is a good guide for state and federal parks. NatureRocks.org has great ideas on what families can do in their backyard.)
3. Be enthusiastic. If we are excited about the outdoors, our kids will follow our lead. That high school science teacher who was excited about astronomy or trees or clouds was right: Nature is cool, and the science behind everything is fascinating. But we can’t stop there. It’s cool and fascinating because it tells us something about God: He’s big (astronomy) and He’s creative (zoology) and He cares about details (biology). I like what Sally Lloyd Jones wrote in The Jesus Storybook Bible: “God created everything in his world to reflect him like a mirror – to show us what he is like, to help us know him, to make our hearts sing.”
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4. Turn off the television. TV is addictive, and, overall, a net-negative for most children. Studies show that children who watch too much TV are more likely to be lazy, obese and have trouble focusing — and less likely to make good grades. Some studies even have linked children’s TV habits to ADHD. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for children under age two, the time when a child’s brain is developing rapidly, and very little TV for older children. Louv was right when he wrote: TV steals time, while nature “amplifies it.”
5. Don’t buy a video game system. My son is only 5, and I’m holding out as long as possible before I even consider getting him one. I’m sure the day is coming when I’ll have to deal with that pressure – and my friends likely will say “I told you so” – but as for now, the only video games he plays are a few educational smartphone apps. Besides, he can get his own game system when he goes to college. (For the record, I had an Atari 2600, and I know I could become addicted to a Wii.)
6. Understand that your child’s behavior might improve outdoors. That’s how it is with us, and because of this, we choose restaurants with outdoor seating. When we’re home and the kids are screaming, we get everyone dressed and go outdoors – and everything’s usually fine. Surprisingly, there’s little research linking nature exposure to good behavior, but we’ve seen it proven true time and time again. After all, most parents, too, see their own behavior improve when they get out of the house.
7. When indoors, focus on the outdoors. If your children watch TV, guide them toward programs about nature and animals. Our 5 year old has learned to love animals by watching PBS’ Wild Kratts. The BBC’s nature documentaries (such as Planet Earth) are spectacular. Also, buy books and games that have nature themes. We’ve bought our oldest son dozens of books about various forms of nature: the seasons, the planets, the weather – and of course, animals. When he could barely talk he was fascinated by squirrels in our yard, so I bought him a board book about them. When he’s indoors, often he’s thinking about what’s outdoors.
8. Make it a habit to go outdoors each day with your kids. Even if it’s only 5-10 minutes, it’s a good practice. Play ball or tag. Ride bikes. Explore the yard. If your child has been more of an indoor kid, this ritual eventually might change their outlook.
9. Start early. It’s never too late to teach a child to love the outdoors, but as with anything, it sure is easier the earlier we start. One suggestion: Before your kid can even crawl or walk, get a good child carrier – a backpack if they can sit up – and walk around the yard each day. Take hikes. Do yard work. All with them, right there in the carrier. They’ll love it.
Michael Foust is an editor and writer who blogs about parenting and fatherhood. He loves his family and also really likes popcorn. Interested in re-posting this in your publication or on your blog for free? Send me a message in the comments section below (the message won’t go public).