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Childhood development experts praise time in the great outdoors

| Friday, June 24, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
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“Turn it off and go outside.”

Many of us heard Mom and Dad say it, but fewer appreciate the wisdom in their words.

Environmental author and journalist Richard Louv gave voice to what parents had believed for generations: Kids need nature.

With his New York Times best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Louv inspired a national dialogue among parents and educators about the widespread decline in the time children spent outside, an epidemic Louv referred to as “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

For kids, getting outside means more than just a chance to return home dirtier than they left.

“An emerging body of correlative evidence,” Louv says, indicates that even mere minutes spent in nature daily can have physical and psychological benefits for children and adolescents, including improvements in childhood health problems such as obesity and Attention Deficit Disorder.

Some pediatricians, Louv says, have even begun “prescribing nature” to children as a supplementary remedy.

A survey conducted by the Nature Conservancy found that only one in four parents in America report that their children spend time daily in a park or natural area.

More than a decade since its 2005 release, Louv's book helped inspire a growing number of outdoor youth camps and programs, says Richard Piacentini, executive director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

Programs such as those at Phipps, as well as Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, are giving children new opportunities to trade in screen time for green time.

The conservancy's weeklong summer camps, for children from preschool to seventh grade, aim at getting kids away from the typical structure and automation of their everyday lives by focusing on free play in nature.

“Quality free play in the woods is important. They learn to connect to nature in a stronger way,” says Patricia Himes, a naturalist educator at the conservancy. “It takes a little while for kids to develop that sense of wonder.”

Free play, suggests a long line of research, can help enhance a child's creativity and problem-solving abilities more effectively than the use of technological devices.

“Giving a kid an iPad when they're 2 so they can entertain themselves is not a good idea,” Piacentini says.

Parents don't need to sell their home and set up camp in the woods to immerse their child in nature.

In his latest book, “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life” ($15.95, Algonquin Books), Louv offers 500 suggestions on how to reconnect with nature for families of all ages and habitats — everything from painting with mud on the pavement to creating your own nature gym by lifting rocks for strength training.

“Some nature is always better than none, and more is better than some,” says Louv in reference to his advice for parents looking to find the right “dose” of outdoors time.

Children's migration from playing outside to staying inside can be attributed to a confluence of multiple causes, Louv says, some more apparent than others.

“Technology now dominates almost every aspect of our lives. Technology is not, in itself, the enemy, but our lack of balance is lethal,” Louv says. “The pandemic of inactivity is one result. Sitting is the new smoking.”

According to a 2014 Nature Conservancy survey of more than 600 kids between the ages of 13 and 18, the most commonly reported reason (80 percent) for not going outside was discomfort from heat and insects.

Since penning his earlier book, Louv has noticed improvements, including legislative action at the state and federal levels to promote outdoors time in schools. However, he says, more progress must be made.

“There is a growing movement to re-invite nature into our lives, but, of course, we see the need for more rapid change,” he says.

Parents who are looking to get their children outside can start by taking matters into their own hands, Himes says.

“As long as you're enthusiastic and you're excited about nature, those are your best tools for getting your kids excited about nature,” she says. “Parents are their kid's best teacher.”

Matthew Zabierek is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7893 or mzabierek@tribweb.com.

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