Tuesday, February 28, 2012

10 Easy Outdoor Activities with Kids

Need some new ideas for outdoor fun with your kids? Here are a few simple suggestions gathered from AMC experts. No expensive lift tickets or fancy gear required. Most are also evergreen activities that work well in any season (even one that can't make up its mind).

1. Feed the birds. Set up a bird feeder (you can make a simple one by spreading peanut butter on a pinecone). See which types of birds come; have the kids keep a log of their visits.

2. Take a night walk. Choose nearby or new: your neighborhood, a local park, along a waterfront, or out in the country. Whether you’re guided by the bright lights of the city or by starlight, pay attention to what you can hear, see, and feel. Even a short walk will illuminate the senses! (Read "Fun after dark" for more nighttime outdoor activities with kids.)

3. Play I Spy, with a focus on the natural world around you.

4. Take photos of favorite spots outdoors. It helps your kids see with fresh eyes—and if you pull the pictures out in a few months, you can note what changes with the seasons.

5. Create a book of coupons that can be redeemed for particular outdoor activities—hikes along a nearby trail, or to state parks or conservation areas, for example. Then don’t let them expire!

6. On your next visit to your favorite park or playground, bring gloves and a bag and pick up trash for a few minutes before playing. Or take a trash hike around the block or anywhere else you like.

7. Clear your family’s calendar and take off for an afternoon of outdoor exploring together.

8. Visit a sugar shack and watch maple syrup being made. (Check out these upcoming festivals).

9. Take the inside outside. Bring out your kids’ blocks, dolls, or other traditionally indoor toys and set up a play space outside. Getting out of a routine can be entertaining.

10. Try letterboxing or geocaching, two pursuits in which you follow clues or GPS coordinates to find a hidden item. Kids love the goal and the reward.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Heather wrote this post.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Maple Sugaring: Upcoming Festivals for Kids of All Ages

It’s the sweet season! Where are you headed to get your maple syrup fix?

At sugarhouses across New England—and even in cities like Somerville, Massachusetts—you can watch sap being boiled down to syrup and taste the delicious results in the next few weeks.

Although the relatively warm winter may be speeding up the sugaring season, rest assured that there will be syrup. The spring cycle of below-freezing nights and warm days that causes sap to flow came early in some areas, but syrup production should be fine so long as the trees don’t start to bud, according to a recent Associated Press article. Once maple trees bud, the sap develops an off taste.

Massachusetts environmental groups—including one that has tapped trees right in the city of Somerville—are offering special celebrations of the season, which are great for kids. I’ve listed a few below, by location and date.

If my list doesn’t show anything near you, try visiting the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association website, which has a directory and map of sugarhouses in the state. Other states have similar associations.

Somerville, MA
Saturday, March 3
Go to Groundwork Somerville’s annual Maple Syrup Boil Down to watch as sap from local city trees is boiled down to create syrup, using equipment made and maintained by Somerville High School students. Free syrup-tasting, music, and children’s activities, with waffles and syrup available for sale. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Somerville Community Growing Center on Vinal Avenue (near Union Square).

Milton, MA
Saturday, March 10, and Sunday, March 11
The Mass Audubon Blue Hills Trailside Museum and the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation offer a variety of activities at the annual Maple Sugar Days at Brookwood Farm, including making maple syrup. Free shuttle rides are offered on the “Maple Express Trolley.” From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days. Fee; no registration required.

Sharon, MA
Sunday, March 11
Saturday, March 17, Sunday, March 18
At Mass Audubon’s Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, re-enactors in period garb lead 90-minute tours about American Indian and colonial sugaring techniques. Visitors can also see sap made into syrup at a modern sugarhouse and sample the final product. Pancakes with syrup, “sap dogs” (hot dogs boiled in sap), and maple popcorn will be available for sale. If you sample too much, walk it off on one of the numerous trails. Pre-registration is highly recommended; the event is free for children ages 3 and under and runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day.

Also on Wednesday, March 14, the sanctuary is offering “Tree to Table,” a program about maple sugaring for children 4 to 6 years old, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and again from 1 to 2:30 p.m.; pre-registration and fee required.

Lincoln, MA
Saturday, March 17, and Sunday, March 18
Take a tour of the sugar bush at Mass Audubon’s educational Drumlin Farm and see sap being collected and boiled down before or after enjoying the annual Sap-to-Syrup Farmer’s Breakfast. The tour includes visits to other spring delights, such as the first baby animals of the season. Programs run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. both days. Tickets and reservations required.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Heather wrote this post.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Outdoor family fun for winter break and beyond

This week is winter break for our children, as it is for many other schoolchildren around the Northeast. The winter we’re having here calls to mind a line from New Hampshire poet and essayist Donald Hall: “Sometimes the January thaw comes in February, sometimes it never arrives at all, and on the rarest occasions it starts early and lasts all winter.” Still, it’s mid-winter by the calendar, and the kids are out of school. How to get them outdoors, as well?

Around here, one benefit of the low-snow winter is that outdoor ice-skating has generally been very good. (Occom Pond in Hanover, NH rents skates; Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vermont, maintains the longest skating trail in the Northeast.) Local ski areas have also used the cold nights to make enough snow to cover most of their trails. Maple sugaring started very early this year, and steam is already billowing from nearby sugar shacks. Our plans for school vacation week include skating, a half-day at the closest ski area, and a trip to our favorite maple syrup maker.

Dozens of outdoor and nature programs for children and families that don't rely on snow are being held in city parks, at Audubon centers, and on conservation land around the AMC region. I've listed a sampling here. Even if you don’t see an event nearby, check with local parks and nature centers to see if they offer similar outdoor activities.

I’ve organized the list below by date and then by location. Follow the links for more details about each activity.

I hope you’ll share your ideas for “winter break” activities here, as well.

February 21 – 24

New York City. Kids Week. Several nature centers operating under New York City Parks & Recreation are offering daily (and some twice-daily) nature crafts and activities during vacation week. Park rangers work with children age 12 and under on such activities as building a bird feeder (Brooklyn), following a winter scavenger hunt (Staten Island), learning about geology (Manhattan), outdoor survival skills (Bronx), animal tracking (Queens), and much more. All activities are free.
- Salt Marsh Center at Marine Park, Brooklyn
- Blue Heron Nature Center, Staten Island
- Inwood Hill Nature Center, Manhattan
- Crotona Nature Center, Bronx
- Fort Totten Visitor’s Center, Queens

Woodstock, Vermont. Sleigh Ride Week at Billings Farm and Museum. 10 am – 3:30 pm. Vermont's only National Park will offer wagon rides if sleigh-riding isn’t possible, along with regular tours of the dairy farm and farmhouse. Entrance fee includes admission to “A Place in the Land,” a 30-minute Academy-Award nominated film about Billings Farm.

Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. Coolidge Reservation. The North Shore Trustees of Reservations site offers “eco-splorations” around Coolidge Point for young children accompanied by an adult. Thursday, February 23, 11 am – noon. The activity is offered again on March 1.

Saturday, February 25
Ipswich, Massachusetts. February Flapjack Fling & Sugaring Tours. Ipswich River Audubon Center. Breakfast spots are filling up fast, but space is still available on sugaring tours. Advance registration required.

Gloucester, Massachusetts. Ravenswood Park. Creature Features: Night Animals. 4:30 – 6:30 pm. Discover animals, such as bats, that sleep during the day and are active at night, followed by a guided hike in the park. Children attend for free; fee for adults.

Greenwich, Connecticut. “Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us?” Audubon Greenwich will screen this documentary film on bee colony collapse, followed by comments from beekeeper Gunther Hauk, who appears in the film. 6:30 – 9:00 pm. RSVP required.

March 3 and 4

Fairfield, Connecticut. Introduction to Backyard Birding. Connecticut Audubon at Fairfield. Saturday, March 3, 10 – 11 am. Ages 12 and up. Free. Advance registration requested.

Mill Grove, Pennsylvania.
Maple Sugar Festival. John James Audubon Center. The famous American naturalist’s home is the base for a walking tour of maple syrup production, plus a pancake breakfast, on Saturday, March 3. The tour is free; small admission fee for the breakfast.

Canton, Connecticut. Maple Sugaring Demonstration. Roaring Brook Nature Center. An annual demonstration on Sunday, March 4, covers the maple sugaring process from identifying the tree to tasting the final product. 2:00 - 3:00 pm. Small fee.

Saturday, March 10
Boston, Massachusetts. Mayor’s Cup at Boston Common Frog Pond Skating Rink. Watch Boston Skating Club students and local pros in a final performance before the outdoor rink closes for the season.

Fairfield, Connecticut. Mini Monsters. Connecticut Audubon at Fairfield. Learn about scorpions, lizards, cockroaches. Kids have a chance to see these and similar creatures up close, using hand lenses, after the slideshow. Small fee. Children must be accompanied by an adult.

March 17 and 18

Lincoln, Massachusetts. Drumlin Farm. Take a tour of the educational farm’s sugar bush on Saturday, March 17, or Sunday, March 18, before sitting down to its annual sap-to-syrup farmer’s breakfast. The tour includes visits to other spring surprises, such as the first kids — baby goats, in this case — of the season. 9:00 am – 1:00 pm both days. Tickets and reservations required.

Fairfield, Connecticut.
Live Birds of Prey. Connecticut Audubon at Fairfield. Saturday, March 17, 10:30 – 11:30 am. Meet the center’s “bird ambassadors,” hawks, owls, and falcons who came to the center as injured animals. They can’t be released into the wild but can teach us about birds of prey. Small fee.

March 23 to 25

Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. AMC’s Highland Center. An AMC Winter Family Adventure package includes snowshoeing, animal tracking, building a snow shelter, tubing and more. No previous winter experience is needed. Activities are planned for ages 5 and up. The package includes lodging, meals, instruction, use of the lodge’s L.L.Bean gear room, and a cross-country ski ticket to Bretton Woods.

March 30 and 31
Canton, Connecticut. Vernal Pools. Roaring Brook Nature Center. An evening program on Saturday, March 30 explores the coming of spring and the amphibians who inhabit ephemeral woodland ponds. 7:30 - 8:30 pm. Not suitable for very young children. Small fee, advance registration required.

Lincoln, Massachusetts. Woolapalooza at Drumlin Farm, Sunday March 31. The MassAudubon farm’s woolly fundraiser includes border collies herding sheep and demonstrations of traditional sheep shearing. Families can follow a sheep-to-sweater interpretive trail for demonstrations of washing, carding, spinning, and dyeing wool. Local fiber artisans will offer demonstrations and sell their wares. Farm-grown food will be available, too. Tickets are available for advance purchase and at the gate.

Photos courtesy of Boston Common Frog Pond Skating Rink and Roaring Brook Nature Center.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Outdoorsy Kids Still Have Better Eyesight

Kids who spend more time outdoors are less likely to be near-sighted, as I noted in a recent post. But it isn’t because they’re spending less time staring at books or computer screens, as I speculated might be the case.

In fact, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, whose book I referred to in the previous post, explained in a comment that among children who spend the same amount of time outdoors, how much they read or work on a computer (“near work”) has no correlation with near-sightedness.

In addition, in lab animals, dim light leads to near-sightedness and bright light normalizes sight by affecting eye growth, she said.

Outdoor light is significantly brighter than indoor light, Aamodt told me in a follow-up email: “Indoor light ranges from 100 lux (home) to 500 lux (office); outdoor light from 1,000 lux (dusk) to 100,000 lux (sunny midday). “ (If you’re wondering, one lux is equal to one lumen per square meter. Aamodt says light boxes used to treat depression can produce 10,000 lux.)

So the bottom line remains the same: Spending time outdoors in childhood is associated with better eyesight. But kids don’t have to be hiking or looking over long vistas to get the benefit; they could be reading in the back yard.

Of course there are many benefits to being physically active while outdoors, but apparently better eyesight isn’t one of them.

Learn more
- Read “The Sun is the Best Optometrist,” a New York Times op-ed on this topic by Aamodt and Sam Wang.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Heather wrote this post.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

“Free-range Kids” part 3: Making our communities work for roaming kids

Do you live in a good “room to roam” community? Do you wish you did? What do we need in our neighborhoods, our towns, and our cities so that children are able to roam freely and safely?

Eric Stones and I considered these questions in our conversation last week (recounted in “‘Free-Range Kids’ part 2: When Kids Don’t Roam”). He lives in suburban Connecticut; I live in rural New Hampshire. And yet we easily agreed on several qualities that make a street, or a neighborhood, or an entire community “good to roam” for children. Here’s our non-expert list:
• Well-maintained sidewalks
• Streets without heavy traffic, and without traffic traveling very fast
• Adults who keep an eye on kids
• Green spaces that are safe for children to play in

After talking to people in what you could call the “room to roam” field — folks working on public policy, issue advocacy, and on the ground in cities and states — I think we did a pretty good job with our list. Their lists are pretty similar — it’s the fight to put them where America’s children live, go to school, and play that’s difficult.

You probably know if you live in a “room to roam” community. And if I drove through your town, I would probably be able to tell, too. As Lenore Skenazy told me in the conversation that started this series, “You can tell the health of a community by how many children are outside.” But in too many of the places we live — my rural town, Eric Stone’s suburban town, big cities and exurban communities — not enough children are able to play safely outside, walk or bike to and from school safely, or roam freely.

Each of the organizations below is working to change that situation. If you’re interested in learning what you can do to make your town a “room to roam” community, you’ll find plenty of places to get involved.

At the end of this post, you’ll also find a brief summary of the current transportation budget battle and the risk to these programs, along with calls to action by AMC and other concerned groups.

Active Living By Design
Active Living By Design (ALBD) was established by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2001. The organization works with local and national groups to build a culture of active living and healthy eating through community-led change. One ALBD project, Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, is helping 50 communities around the country reshape their environments in support of healthy living.

Read more about Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities projects across the AMC region:
Washington, D.C.
• New York: Buffalo, Kingston, Rochester
• Pennsylvania: Philadelphia
• Massachusetts: Fitchburg, Somerville

Safe Routes to School

Safe Routes to School has a simple mission: to help communities develop safe walking and bicycling to and from schools and in daily life. Simple, but far-reaching, because if we can reverse the trends on walking to school (currently less than one in five children walks to school even occasionally), that one change may create a ripple effect in a number of other issues, from childhood obesity to neighborhood safety. Safe Routes to School provides help to parent organizations and communities and advocates for public policy and funding to support its mission.

Alliance for Biking and Walking
The Alliance for Biking and Walking is a coalition of local and state groups working on creating better and safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has been an important force behind the growth in walking and biking trails across the United State. When the nonprofit organization was founded in 1986, the country had fewer than 200 known rail-trails. In 2011, there were more than 1,600 such trails, covering more than 20,000 miles. The group’s mission is to create a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors, thereby helping build healthier places for healthier people.

Parks Build Community

Parks Build Community is a project of the National Parks and Recreation Association. The project reconstructs dilapidated facilities and builds new ones in parks around the country, working with cities and public and private agencies as well as community organizations.

What's At Stake
Even though less than two cents of every transportation dollar pays for walking, biking, or trail programs like these, federal funding for such programs was completely removed from the version of the federal transportation funding bill that passed the House on January 31. The Senate is scheduled to vote on its version of the transportation funding bill on Tuesday, February 21.

Read this explanation of the House and Senate transportation bills by the Safe Routes to School folks, a February 13 call to action by Lenore Skenazy on Free-Range Kids, and pleas from AMC and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to contact your elected officials in favor of two amendments that would restore funding to the Recreational Trails Program and to community-based walking and biking programs.

AMC has used the Recreational Trails Program to fund work by a teen trail crew on the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires and trail maintenance on the heavily used Lonesome Lake trail. These trails extend the roaming room of our children beyond their day-to-day communities. Add them to a regular network of walking and biking paths and safe routes around town, and we have great outdoors kids.

Photos courtesy of Safe Routes to School, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and NYC Taught Me.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

"Free-Range Kids" Part 2: When Kids Don’t Roam

In the nearly three years that I’ve written the “Great Kids, Great Outdoors” blog, I’ve read many studies relevant to children and families in the outdoors. Some have changed the way I think. A smaller number have changed the way I parent.

One in that latter category wasn’t even a report. It was a map showing four circles around areas in which children freely roamed on their own at age 8, one for each of four generations in one British family. The widest circle, belonging to the generation born in the early decades of the 20th century, was roughly 12 miles in diameter. The smallest belonged to the generation born at the turn of the 21st century: a mere 600 yards in diameter.

That map got under my skin, partly because it could have been the map of my own family. My grandfather, born a century ago, roamed many miles from his home as a child, nearly always on foot. My father, living in a Midwestern city, roamed just as far as a young boy using public transportation and walked up to 4 miles in any direction as part of his daily routines. At age 8, I lived in a newly constructed apartment complex in a different Midwestern city. The school bus I took every day traveled just-built thoroughfares four lanes wide. The school itself had also just sprouted up out of former farmland. My roaming was bounded by the new mall at the entrance to the apartment complex and the buildings where my friends lived. A few years later when we moved to a smaller town, I walked to school and to the park, about a mile each way.

And what about my own children? When I first saw that map, Ursula was 10 and Virgil was 6. How far did they roam in their everyday lives?

The short answer is only about as far as Edward Grant, the 8-year-old in the Natural England study who roamed just 300 yards from his front steps. We had our reasons for having Ursula and Virgil on a similarly short leash: no near neighbors to visit; a 40-minute drive to school; activities in towns 15 to 60 miles away. During the school week, we often didn’t return home until after dark. It shocked me to realize it, but without planning to, we’d made our children captives of the car.

Since then, we’ve established giving Ursula and Virgil more “room to roam” as one of our family goals. I’ve discovered that it’s easier to give them that space and freedom in town. The nearby college town where we do most of our errands and where the kids study in the library after school has become a good place to roam, even though we don’t live there. It’s taken work, both psychologically and in terms of our schedules. I need to remind myself that it’ll be good for the kids to pick up something we need at the store, or to buy a gift for a birthday party, on their own, without me. And I need to give them time to complete “walking” errands.

We’ve taken our goals on the road, too. We travel regularly to see family members and friends and have enlisted them in our efforts to give Ursula and Virgil roaming room. At Grandpa’s house, they take the dog on walks around the neighborhood. When we visit other friends, Ursula and Virgil join their kids on forays to parks, neighborhood stores, and schools. Just last month in one of those cities Ursula, now 13, made her first solo trip using public transportation.

It’s hard to put a name to what children get when they’re able to roam their communities. Eric Stones, longtime trip leader for AMC’s Connecticut Chapter, considers that it might be “maturity.”

Like me, Eric sees his own family story in the map from the British study — even more so since he grew up in England. “I was a big roamer as a kid,” he told me the other day. At age 7 he took public transportation to school; at age 10, when he got a bicycle, he regularly rode 10 to 15 miles along a fairly busy road to go to train yards (he had a special passion for trains), watch cricket matches, or meet up with friends.

“Now I have a 9-year-old,” he said, “and I wouldn’t dream of having him do that.” What changed from Eric’s childhood to his son Roderick’s? Eric grew up in a small town with few cars; his son is growing up in suburban Connecticut. “I think suburbs are part of the problem,” Eric said. “There are no sidewalks here. I don’t feel comfortable with him walking along the road. The cars just whiz by.”

Eric’s sense that cars are faster now is borne out by numerous studies showing that most children today contend with more vehicle traffic and higher vehicle speeds in their neighborhoods than their parents did. “I’m not sure people have the same approach to time now,” Eric said. “People’s lives are so rushed and pressured. So instead of driving 25 miles an hour, they drive 45 or 50.” Like many other parents, Eric responds by keeping his son off the streets.

Like Ursula and Virgil, Roderick’s activities are spread out over a broader geographic area. “When I went to piano lessons, I walked,” Eric said. “We drive Roderick to piano and to gymnastics. But we’re traveling suburban distances. He couldn’t walk to those lessons even if he wanted to.”

There are other changes. “I roamed because I didn’t have a TV.” Eric said. “We lived in a small house.” All his friends were outside, too. Together they played soccer in the streets, roller skated on the sidewalks, and rode bikes into town. As for Roderick? “I think computers and the Internet coming into homes made an even bigger difference than TV,” Eric said. Roderick has his own TV, Nintendo DS, and iPad. “He loves to spend time on those.”

Considering the benefits of roaming as a child, Eric thinks that he and his friends gained a lot of confidence and acquired a certain amount of savvy, too, about safety and limits and how to maneuver in the world. Even as a young boy, Eric was able to pursue interests in trains and photography that were not laid out for him by his parents. The time he spent outside led him to hiking and climbing. Eric considered his son’s experiences at a comparable age and said, “I don’t think he’s as mature as I was at his age because of the different experiences.” I would say the same of my own children.

What if we want our children to develop that maturity? We can work to make our neighborhoods and towns “room to roam” communities. In my next post, I’ll describe the steps some communities have taken to make childhood roaming easier and safer.

Learn more
- Read the first post in this series: “Room to Roam: Encouraging ‘Free-Range’ Children.”
- Read another post about Eric Stones and his family: “Out there on the trail, we’re together” (June 2009)

Photo of children walking from Transportation for America (courtesy April Bertelson).

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Room to Roam: Encouraging “Free-Range” Children

If you want a sure-fire indicator of the divide between generations, ask people how far from home they could walk at age 8 without an accompanying parent.

The British organization Natural England gave a striking example of that generational divide in a 2007 report by researcher William Bird. In 1926, George Thomas was 8 years old and walked everywhere, including 6 miles each way from home to a fishing hole. His son-in-law, Jack Halliday, 8 years old in 1950, walked to and from school and about a mile each way to play in the local woods. In 1979, Jack’s 8-year-old daughter, Vicky, also walked each day to school and in warm weather walked on her own as far as the swimming pool, about half a mile from home. Vicky’s son, Edward Grant, 8 years old in 2007, roamed no more than 300 yards from his front steps. He was driven to and from school, driven to safe places to ride his bicycle, and seldom took part in an activity without adult supervision. Edward would like to have played on the street by his house, his mother said in the report, but “he doesn’t go out because other children don’t.” Edward’s great-grandfather was then 88 years old and still, he said, “a keen walker.”

This severe contraction in children’s room to roam has occurred in the United States, as well. Reasons given for the shift are many and intertwined: low-density suburban development, the rise of car culture, fewer stay-at-home parents, increased homework, fears about children’s safety. Not long after the Natural England report was published, an American mother let her 9-year-old son take the New York City subway home from Bloomingdale’s department store, alone. In a column for the New York Sun about her son’s foray into subway independence, Lenore Skenazy wrote that he’d been begging her to “leave him somewhere” and let him find his own way home. So she gave him “a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.”

To someone from an older generation, that Skenazy’s 9-year-old son took a 45-minute subway ride by himself probably wouldn’t seem unusual or surprising. But when national TV and radio shows picked up the story, the response of many parents was that Skenazy was guilty of neglect or child abuse. One talk show identified her as “America’s worst mom.” Yet as Skenazy pointed out in her column and in other articles since then, New York City is safer now than 40 or 50 years ago, as are most U.S. cities. The media’s constant stream of bad-news stories, in her view, has skewed the perspective of America’s parents, schools, and communities. The risk, she argues, of protecting children from childhood — of putting knee pads on toddlers, of prohibiting free play at recess, of refusing to let children talk to strangers or walk to a friend’s house unaccompanied — is that they won’t learn crucial skills for navigating the world as adults.

Skenazy has joined a chorus of researchers, educators, and community members calling for more room for children to roam — and added “free-range children” to their phrasebook. Her blog and book of the same name debunk fears and what she calls “worst-first” thinking, or “taking the worst possible outcome and acting as if that’s likely to happen.” The blog and the book highlight the benefits of letting children roam, such as increasing children’s creative problem-solving abilities and independent thinking, and offer statistics to ease parental anxiety about children’s safety.

I recently spoke with Skenazy, who offered the following advice for creating “free-range” children and communities:
- Turn off the TV. As TV viewers, we’re riveted by bad news; in fact, as human beings, we’re wired to pay attention to bad news, so we can avoid it for ourselves. Constant media coverage of rare occurrences, however, makes us think that the world is scarier than it actually is. The best way to counteract this tendency, Skenazy says, is simply to ignore the temptation to overreact. And the best way to do that may be turn off the television when — or before —such stories come on.
- Counter “worst-first” thinking with real-world numbers. If your child’s school bans children from snow play or throwing balls or playing tag at recess — all actual cases — ask the school to put numbers to the risk involved and challenge them to weigh that risk against the developmental benefits of play.
- Let children play together without you around. “Kids play differently on their own,” Skenazy says. She points to a recent study that found that children at a playground played less when their parents were present. “Without you there,” she says, “they get bored. Boredom is good. It’s so painful that they’re forced to do something to relieve the boredom. Now they’re problem-solving. Let’s say they decide to throw a ball around. They have to figure out the rules, negotiate, compromise, exercise creativity.”
- Give children opportunities to practice self-regulation. Learning how to control emotions and play with a group of peers is an important skill, and in Skenazy’s view best learned away from interfering adults. “If I’m your mom,” she says, “I’m going to let you take a fourth swing at a ball, because the sun was in your eyes. But if you’re playing with a group of kids, they’re going to tell you you’re out, go to the end of the line. When you go to the end of the line, that’s self-regulation,” she says. “Nature made play so much fun that kids stick with it,” even as they’re learning to deal with inevitable disappointments and defeats.
- Create communities that support free-range children. “One of the antidotes to fear is community,” says Skenazy. “You can tell the health of a community by how many children are outside.”
o Join together to create safe environments for free-ranging children. “I’m not against safety,” Skenazy says. “I’m all for seat belts and food regulations and bike helmets,” she says, but notes that numbers back up those safety measures. “Kids need sidewalks and stop signs,” people who obey the speed limit, and people they know in the community, she says.
o Encourage children to talk to strangers. Children need to know the adults in their community, and know that they can rely on them. Trick-or-treating at Halloween, selling Girl Scout cookies, collecting money for good causes, or simply greeting neighbors on the way to and from school are all ways that children can become acquainted with the adults in their community.
o Build trust. If you’re at the bus stop or the playground with a group of other parents, Skenazy suggests offering to watch all the other kids. “Our kids don’t each need individual bodyguards,” she says. “You’re saying, ‘We can help each other, and our kids can rely on any one of us.’ You’re saying, ‘I trust you, and you can trust me.’”

Learn more
Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids blog has a link to “How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Four Generations,” an article about the Natural England report.

Flickr photo taken in Castle Combe, England, March 2011.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Outdoorsy Kids Have Better Eyesight

Need another reason to get outside with your kids? It’s good for their eyes!

Children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to be near-sighted. This is a correlation, not proven cause-and-effect; my grandmother would tell you the real cause for better eyesight is that the outdoorsy kids spend less time reading books in dim light. Still, it seems like a good reason to put on the snow boots and head outside.

I learned this tidbit from the book Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, by neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang (Bloomsbury, 2011). Here’s how they summarize the research:

“One study compared six- and seven-year-old children of Chinese ethnicity living in Sydney, Australia, with those living in Singapore. The rate of myopia was more than eight times lower in Sydney (3.3 percent) than in Singapore (29.1 percent), despite similar rates of parental myopia (about 70 percent in at least one parent). Children in Sydney spent fourteen hours per week outside, on average, compared with three hours per week for children in Singapore.”

The authors also cite a U.S. study that found that “two hours per day of outdoor activity reduces the risk of myopia by about a factor of four compared with less than one hour per day.”

The incidence of near-sightedness has been on the rise over the last few decades in many countries, suggesting that something more than genetics alone is at work, Aamodt and Wang say. Although the reason for the positive association between time spent outdoors and good eyesight is unknown, they offer the hypothesis that bright outdoor light may provide better conditions than dim indoor light for the development of the correct distance between a child’s pupil and retina. Since earlier generations spent many hours outside every day, Aamodt and Wang say, our eyes may develop better if we spend more of our childhood outdoors.

Playing armchair neuroscientist, I wonder if spending time outside also helps because kids are focusing on objects at a range of distances, rather than staring for long periods at a book or computer screen at the same distance from their eyes. Aamodt and Wang don’t address that question, but I know where my grandmother would stand.

Learn more
- Check out Aamodt and Wang’s blog, Welcome to Your Brain.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Heather wrote this post.

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