Over Labor Day weekend, the kids, my husband and I escaped to California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. We stayed with friends at their rustic cabin on Silver Lake, a quiet spot tucked behind Kirkwood Ski Resort.
The cabin was unplugged, without Internet and phone access, and even electricity. The kids were dependent on the outdoors for entertainment—and they found plenty to do.
They paddled a canoe across the lake, watched an osprey dive for a fish, hiked (pictured) three miles to Sandy Beach, collected pine cones, made homemade fishing poles with sticks, and constructed a gigantic Lincoln Logs-style house with branches from a fallen tree.
I taught my son how to skip rocks and I helped my daughter fill a garbage bags with pine cones for a teacher at her school to use in an art project.
Every night, the kids easily fell asleep at 7:30 p.m. They were exhausted from running, jumping, building, paddling, climbing, rolling, galloping, collecting. They were also filthy dirty and covered in scratches and bug bites, but they were as happy as can be.
This was our first overnight trip to the woods this summer--and it's sad to think it happened over the last weekend of summer. Of course, my husband and I had big plans to go camping and backpacking with the kids but work deadlines, house projects, birthday parties, play dates, and family commitments got in the way.
We're obviously not the only family struggling to get our kids outdoors. The Outdoor Foundation, a Boulder, Colorado-based nonprofit organization, recently published its 2009 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report indicating that outdoor activity among children ages 6 to 17 declined 8 percent in 2008 from 2007. The 2008 report, found an 11 percent decline from 2007 to 2006.
“This study revealed that although overall participation in outdoor activities is rising year after year, children’s participation is declining,” Chris Fanning, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation, told Health Care News. “This means parents and role models must start sharing their love of the outdoors with children.”
It's important to expose children to the outdoors for so many reasons, according to a lengthy list of studies compiled by Leave No Child Inside, a Chicago-based nonprofit. People who demonstrate a commitment to protect the natural world identify childhood experiences in nature as a critical factor in their actions (Chawla, 1999). In a study of 400 youths, a majority reported that wilderness challenge programs had major impacts on their physical, emotional, and intellectual development and well-being (Kellert & Derr, 1998).
Participation in outdoor activities allows children to connect with themselves at the same time as it strengthens their family relationships (Harris, 2003). Participation in green outdoor activities such as fishing was associated with reduced Attention-Deficit Disorder symptoms in a sample of children from the Midwest (Faber Taylor, Kuo & Sullivan, 2001). Children report that being in a natural setting allows them to escape the pressures of everyday life (Harris, 2003).
Kindergarten students who spent 1-2 hours everyday playing in a forested area improved their motor skills more significantly than students who played at a traditional outdoor playground (Fjortoft, 2002). Ninety percent of adults who describe themselves as active started their favorite outdoor activity before the age of 18 (Harris, 2003).
On the drive home my husband and I agreed that we would go on similar trips next summer. We talked about back-packing in Yosemite, rafting on the American River, and fishing at Putah Creek. We even fantasized about renting out our San Francisco condo for a month next summer and moving to a cabin in Truckee, where my husband's colleague works from his home. With Internet access, my husband and I could both work while the kids go to some cool summer camp in the Sierra. In the evenings, we could all go for a hike and roast marshmellows in the backyard. Is this just a dream? How can we actually make it happen?