Shifting into summer:  Get kids outside, moving around, and growing smarter

With the final bell about to ring on another school year, kids are tingling with anticipation. Do them a big favor by making sure their “freedom” includes plenty of fresh air and lively activity. Plug wired kids into the Great Outdoors, and watch them soar.

The National Wildlife Federation, with its slogan, “Inspiring Americans to protect wildlife for our children’s future,” is known for critter conservation. But the NWF also works to build awareness of the importance of getting kids outdoors. Citing multiple sources for the data, the NWF website notes that “In the last two decades, childhood has moved indoors. The average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen.”

To be sure, e-devices are here to stay. Kids love ‘em and are getting introduced to them when learning to walk and talk, and these devices offer abundant opportunities for exciting, interactive learning. For example, the Little Scholar® learning tablet for preschoolers, kindergartners, and first graders offers more than 150 apps, songs, and eBooks. It even has an original animated/live action video series called Charlie & Company™, whose cast of characters often get active and outdoors.

And getting outside IS important. The NWF website offers lists many research-supported benefits of outdoor play, ranging from reducing stress levels and possibly, ADHD symptoms, to improving fitness. It also provides a fact sheet titled, “Whole Child: Developing Mind, Body and Spirit Through Outdoor Play.” It includes a quote from First Lady Michelle Obama, recalling her own growing-up years: “When I was young we walked to school every day, rain or shine—in wind, sleet, hail and snow, too. And we spent hours running around outside when school got out.”

That simple notion of “running around” has not just physical benefits but academic ones. Gretchen Reynolds, writing for the New York Times Well Blog (Phys Ed), reported on a large-scale study of 12,000 Nebraska schoolchildren published in August 2013 in The Journal of Pediatrics. She wrote, “…researchers compiled each child’s physical fitness, as measured by a timed run, body mass index and academic achievement in English and math, based on the state’s standardized test scores.” The results showed fitness was linked to significantly higher achievement scores.

A couple years ago Portland Family online published “Why Playing Outdoors Makes Children Smarter.” In addition to listing 20 reasons why, including outside play promoting problem-solving and leadership skills, the article summarized that “While playing outside, children explore with all their senses, they witness new life, they create imaginary worlds and they negotiate with each other to create a playful environment.”

One of the best ways to get kids outside this summer is through programs offered by a nature center. Someone (or more likely multiple someones) has/have taken the time to create a Wikipedia page that lists nature centers throughout the U.S. by state. Most nature centers offer guided walks and explorations for kids and families, and many offer day camps by age or grade level.

The Portland Family article notes that “Time in nature helps children to notice patterns. The natural world is full of patterns. The petals on flowers, the veins of a leaf, the bark on a tree are all patterns. Pattern building is a crucial early math skill.” It adds that “playing outdoors helps children to notice similarities and differences,” which is also very helpful to math success.

Getting your child outdoors, observing nature, and moving around is important in building physical and academic fitness!