Out­door play

Play­ing out­doors is vi­tal for kids.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - PARENTING - By MICHELE MUNZ

DR KATH­LEEN Berchel­mann, a pae­di­atric hos­pi­tal­ist at Bar­nesJewish, Mis­souri Bap­tist and Progress West hos­pi­tals in the United States, sees the most ex­treme cases of stressed, de­pressed and anx­ious kids.

When she in­quires about healthy ac­tiv­i­ties in the teens’ lives, al­most none men­tion any­thing out­doors.

Berchel­mann said she notices her most care­free pa­tients have op­po­site lives. They are cov­ered in ticks af­ter be­ing out catch­ing frogs or have an in­fected mos­quito bite af­ter a camp­ing trip. “They are the ones wait­ing an hour to see you and are still gig­gling when you get in the room,” she said.

Chil­dren’s time in na­ture is rapidly di­min­ish­ing. To­day’s youth spend just four to seven min­utes out­side each day in un­struc­tured out­door play such as climb­ing trees, catch­ing bugs or play­ing tag. Yet, they spend more than seven hours each day in front of a screen.

The ques­tion of how this af­fects a child’s devel­op­ment has be­come in­creas­ingly ur­gent. In Au­gust, the US Na­tional Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion re­leased a com­pre­hen­sive re­port – Whole Child: De­vel­op­ing Mind, Body And Spirit Through Out­door Play – re­veal­ing how the unique ben­e­fits of play­ing out­side pro­mote not just phys­i­cal well­ness but also mental.

“It’s not just about loss of in­no­cence, the de­tach­ment from all things grow­ing and green. It’s a se­ri­ous pub­lic health is­sue we all need to care about,”says Na­tional Wildlife Foun­da­tion ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor Kevin Coyle.

In­creas­ing out­door play­time can help pro­tect chil­dren from trou­bling trends.

Los­ing play­time

Chil­dren are los­ing play­time to home­work, sports prac­tices and af­ter-school lessons. When they are free, they are plugged in. At the same time, schools have cut back on re­cess to boost test scores. Child ab­duc­tions make par­ents fear­ful of let­ting kids roam.

Dr Gar­rett Bur­ris, a pae­di­atric neu­rol­o­gist at St Luke’s Hos­pi­tal in Ch­ester­field, sees many pa­tients with At­ten­tion Deficit Hy­per­ac­tive Dis­or­der and emo­tional dis­or­ders. More than other chil­dren, he says, those with ADHD and other prob­lems need the mental break that the out­doors pro­vide.

“What is re­mark­able is that I find that many chil­dren don’t go out and play, and they don’t ex­er­cise,” Bur­ris said. “It’s too easy to get home and start tex­ting and open up a screen. You don’t have to move. You don’t have to go to a friend’s house.”

The de­cline in green time is not the cause of these med­i­cal con­di­tions, Bur­ris and oth­ers say. But in­creas­ing out­door play­time might help pro­tect chil­dren from trou­bling trends:

> About 4.5 mil­lion school chil­dren (in Amer­ica) have been di­ag­nosed with ADHD, an in­crease of 3% each year since 1997. The dis­or­der can im­pair aca­demic progress and so­cial­i­sa­tion.

> A sur­vey last year by the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion found a third of chil­dren ages eight to 17 re­ported in­creas­ing stress lev­els. An­other re­cent poll of adults moved stress up the ranks to among the top chil­dren’s health con­cerns.

At­ten­tion fa­tigue

Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois re­searchers found ex­po­sure to nat­u­ral set­tings sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced ADHD symp­toms such as inat­ten­tion and im­pul­siv­ity of chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in 2004. A pos­si­ble rea­son is that na­ture helps pre­vent “at­ten­tion fa­tigue” by en­gag­ing the mind ef­fort­lessly.

The Whole Child re­port com­piles stud­ies show­ing how out­door play leads to hap­pier kids: Chil­dren’s stress lev­els fall within min­utes of see­ing green spa­ces. Out­door play teaches kids to col­lab­o­rate and solve prob­lems. They are more con­fi­dent, cre­ative and even nicer.

The mount­ing sci­ence is caus­ing doc­tors and par­ents to take no­tice.

Michele Cleve­land, 41, of St Charles, has an 11-year-old son di­ag­nosed with ADHD. She re­cently learned more about the ben­e­fits of out­door play in an ef­fort to re­duce her son’s med­i­ca­tion, which sup­presses his ap­petite, she said. But daily play is a chal­lenge.

Af­ter­noons are filled with home­work, sports prac­tices and Boy Scouts for him and his seven-year-old brother. He has fewer play­mates be­cause he strug­gles to fit in. Cleve­land said she is fear­ful to let her boys play out­side alone, so they get on the com­puter or watch TV while she fin­ishes chores or cooks din­ner.

“I need to re-pri­ori­tise so I can give kids that time,” she said. “The laun­dry is go­ing to be there no mat­ter what.”

The US Na­tional Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion’s physi­cian-re­viewed Whole Child re­port in­cludes rec­om­men­da­tions for par­ents and doc­tors to get kids play­ing out­side: Care­givers > Be a role model. Show them how to un­plug from me­dia and plug into na­ture.

> En­list friends and neigh­bours for out­door play groups.

> Join kids for fun in the back­yard, park, gar­den or na­ture trail. Health­care providers > Ask ques­tions about out­door time and me­dia habits on in­take forms and risk as­sess­ments. Talk to par­ents about the link be­tween out­door time and bet­ter health.

> Write a pre­scrip­tion for reg­u­lar out­door time.

> In­struct par­ents to cre­ate a na­ture jour­nal that logs out­door ac­tiv­i­ties with their kids and the ef­fect it has on their chil­dren’s mood.

> Re­mind par­ents to limit plugged-in time. – St Louis Post-Dispatch/McClatchy-Tribune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

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