Mother Earth's Classroom

Reconnecting kids with nature.

Today, my childhood would be categorized as “free-range.” But wait, isn’t that the term used for livestock that roam free and are not factory farmed? Children today have quite a different experience than those of prior generations. They spend half the amount of time outdoors as children did in generations past. Moreover, many of their activities include the use of TVs, computers, video games and iPads.

On average, preschool children ages 2-5, spend four hours a day with screen media while children ages 8-18 spend about seven and a half hours per day with screens. Time spent with screens is associated with childhood obesity, sleep disturbances and attention difficulties. Studies show that direct exposure to television is linked to increased early childhood aggression, and toddler screen time is associated with problems in later childhood, including lower math scores and school achievement. As such, it’s vital for kids to have unstructured playtime— especially in nature.

Yes, children can survive without a connection to nature. However, they won’t thrive. Spending time outdoors reduces children’s stress levels, obesity rates and reliance on behavior-regulating drugs. Further, unstructured outdoor activities enhance social development, problem-solving and overall creativity.

Need more convincing? Kids who play outside learn about their surroundings, giving them context and an appreciation of the world in which they live. Activities like visiting a park or walking a trail can enhance the emotional bond between a parent and a child and foster more effective communication skills in kids.

Spring and summer are great seasons to explore the wonders of nature and learn something new. Youngsters strengthen gross-motor and art skills as they go geocaching or build forts. Observation skills are refined as they inspect insects or footprints in the sand. Their senses of hearing and touch are heightened as they listen to thunder and feel raindrops wet their skin. Social skills improve as children work together in a game of manhunt.

The Long Island Nature Collaborative for Kids (LINCK), a program of The Early Years Institute, a regional nonprofit organization based in Plainview, New York, developed www.pickapark.org for parents of young children. Caregivers can search from a mobile device, iPad or desktop to find a park that meets all their family’s needs for a fun day. Browse through more than 700 parks on Long Island. Each can be reviewed and selected by zip code or amenities, such as bathrooms, stroller path accessibility, shaded benches or refreshments.

Long Island offers active and passive parks. Active parks include areas of action-oriented play, such as basketball courts or baseball and softball fields. Passive parks provide a more relaxed experience through bird watching, walking paths or fishing.

Looking for an all-natural play space that stimulates learning and requires the use of all five senses? Visit one of LINCK’s outdoor “nature explore” classrooms and watch as your child’s imagination and wonder come alive. LINCK has five outdoor classrooms open to the public on Long Island.

Children grow up healthier when the adults in their lives encourage experiencing the outdoors and understand that free-range play in nature provides their children with untold advantages. It begins with parents as a child’s first role models and teachers. If we want to give kids the best start in life, nurture their curiosity and love of nature. Not only does time in nature promote healthy lifestyles, literacy, outdoor play, and reduced television and computer screen time, but it also develops future stewards of the environment. Keep in mind the slogan that guides LINCK: Children will not save what they do not love.