Monday, August 6, 2012

So often, the cure to what ails us is right outside the window.

For most of human history, people were outside chasing things and turning dirt and planting seeds. They took in Vitamin D from the sun, and learned to adapt activity to the changing of the seasons. Now, though, we have almost entirely decoupled ourselves from nature. The price? A third of all American adults are obese. {The French, by contrast, don’t even have a word for "fat," Paul Rudnick mused in a mock-Parisian tone in The New Yorker a few months past. “If a woman is obese,” he wrote, “we simply call her American.”}

Children who play outside are less likely to get sick, to be stressed or become aggressive, and are more adaptable to life’s unpredictable turns. The architecture of the brain is designed to support the kind of experiential learning that happens when kids take to the outdoors. They are also less likely to be fat. There is a direct correlation between the time a child spends indoors, in front of a screen, and the weight of the child.

Unfortunately, we have inadvertently taught our children to fear the outdoors, where there's traffic and strangers. We tell them that they are safest inside (where, air quality can be 10 times worse, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). By 1990, according to one study, the radius of play around a house for a nine-year-old had shrunk to one-ninth of what it was 20 years earlier. This is despite the increase in community parks, greenways, bike trails and walking paths.
With no access to television and closely monitored use of media, my kids have little choice but to make their way out of the house. They gather at the playground across the street, alongside the other children in the neighborhood: Franz and Sophie, Hank and Luna, Oscar and Eloise. They swing from ropes and pedal their bikes and race their scooters. Midori and Sophie dig for worms while the boys jump fences to pick the apples from backyard trees. They make their way to the river, and Franz shows the younger boys how to catch snakes, shoving them in his mother's white pillowcases.
And when I roll up to the driveway after a long day training on the bike, I am always greeted by the same sight...

My daughter. Waiting for me by the gate. She will see me coming down the street, and will run inside to grab her water bottle and an assortment of items for her basket. Her bike laying neatly on the flagstone, her helmet firmly affixed to her head. "I'm ready, mama. I've been waiting for you. Can we go for a ride?" 

Young children have an innate desire to be outside, to engage in unstructured play and to explore their world...yet they are often denied those opportunities. A Hofstra University survey of 800 mothers, with children between the ages of 3 and 12, found that 70 percent of mothers reported playing outdoors every day when they were young, compared with only 31 percent of their children. Also, 56 percent of mothers reported that, when they were children, they remained outdoors for three hours at a time or longer, compared with only 22 percent of their children.

Much of that fault lies with parents, who not only fail to moderate the consumption of technology, but who often advocate it's use because it requires a lower level of parenting. It is, in short, easier to keep watch over a child plugged in to a video game than to chase after a child sprinting about the sidewalk. Parents, too, must be willing to engage with go for a walk down to the river and traipse over a ride a single track and build a snow fort...

And wouldn't it be better for us all if we did.

My happiest moments in life are spent chasing my children through fields and over rocks and hills...riding at their side on our bikes and swapping the stories of our day...hearing what is interesting, important, meaningful to them. Shaking out my jersey pockets at night to find acorns, rocks and leaves shoved in them by two sets of tiny hands...souvenirs of our days together. As much as my daughter waits at the gate for me, I look for her. I always hope that she is there, wanting to go for a slow ride around the block...and I have never declined her invitation.