West Central Blogger

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Go outside and play! (Batteries not needed.)

Remember playing when you were a kid? If you’re over, say, 35, chances are good the pasture or empty lot behind your house was your ball field, the nearby woods your jungle gym, and you ran in and out of the neighbors’ houses like they were second homes to you—and probably were. "Organized sports" meant getting enough kids together for a pick-up ball game. Your parents’ daily admonition? "Be home for dinner/by dark."

Times have changed. We have been made more wary of our surroundings. We don’t know our neighbors as we once did, especially since the stay-at-home parent is practically a rarity these days and more young children spend their days in child care.

Today, we want our children to grow up in a safe environment, within close range of our watchful eyes, involved in activities we believe will enrich them. That’s great, but the downside is children don’t get out for creative, outdoor play as much as they used to.

The lack of play, particularly outdoor play, is a big contributor to the growing sedentary habits of children, says Betsy Thigpen, an early education specialist at Western Kentucky University Research Foundation. "Keeping children inside for most of the day leads to less active play and more structured, adult-directed activity. Outdoor play provides important opportunities to explore the natural world and learn about our environment."

Outdoor play strengthens muscles, hearts and lungs. "It encourages creativity and imagination and provides opportunities for collaboration and problem-solving with peers," Thigpen says.

The outdoors offers a treasure trove of experiences for the very young as well, who explore the world through their senses. "The outdoors presents a new world of sights, sounds, smells and tactile experiences," Thigpen continues. "Infants and toddlers benefit from time spent outside as much as older children do, but caregivers may not recognize the need or benefits for very young children."

Thigpen feels child care environments offer an untapped potential for addressing obesity, overweight and sedentary lifestyles in young children. Studies show that children in child care spend an average of only 60-75 minutes outside as part of a 10-hour day, and about 4-10 minutes an hour in actual vigorous play.

Thigpen offers these inexpensive ideas for caregivers and parents who want to create a more "outdoor friendly" environment for young children:

  • Create outdoor areas for diaper-changing, feeding and relaxing so play is minimally affected by these interruptions.

  • Kids can’t get enough of sand and water activities!

  • Provide a natural habitat with butterfly-attracting plants and bird feeders to give children a firsthand experience with the natural world.

  • Hang wind chimes or mobiles to provide visual and auditory interest.

  • Provide safe spots for crawling, such as grass or a vinyl or wood composite surface.

  • Rocking, pushing and riding wheel toys are a great way for kids to use their large motor skills.

  • Consider play areas that include gently-sloping non-metal slides, short tunnels, peek-a-boo places and sturdy ledges or railings about 14-16 inches high for babies to pull themselves up.

For a list of outdoor and kids’ games and more information about outdoor play, visit http://www.wcif.org/ and click on "Kids’ Play."

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