Take a Child Outside Week, Sept 24th - 30th

Cox News Service – September 24, 2007

Take a Child Outside Week, Sept 24th - 30th

Once upon a time, children played outside. Not so much anymore and that's why a plan born in Raleigh at the North Carolina Museum of Natural History has become a nationwide push to reintroduce kids to the outdoors.

From today through Friday, national Take a Child Outside Week will ask adults to take time and reintroduce kids to the great outdoors, even their own backyard. In communities around the country, organizations are encouraging people to get the kids outside to let them just play.

In Elizabeth City, N.C., a hands-on science center for children called Port Discover is promoting the week with activities each day, culminating with a presentation by George "Bucket" Taylor Ph.D. Taylor, a retired university professor and naturalist, will talk to parents and kids about going into the backyard or surrounding area and rediscovering the outside world, says center director LuAnne Pendergraft.

"Part of this is helping them (kids) understand what they're seeing," says Pendergraft.

The other part is re-educating adults on how to let kids go outside and simply explore the world; like it used to be when many of today's adults were kids, before the lure of technology and the hustle and bustle of organized activities kept us inside or too busy for "free play."

Outside, in the world, children used to pick up sticks and create things with their imagination. Forts were built in the backyard while frogs and rolly pollies were gathered from the dirt for inspection and play.

Children were immersed in the natural world, creating opportunity for fun, learning about and practicing for life while role-playing in their surrounding environment.

Today, children are arguably inside more times than not, playing on the computer or on a video game console. They are watching DVDs and the world is ready made for them, leaving little to the imagination, cutting them off from the frogs and rolly pollies and forts of a bygone era.

"Children who get a chance to play outside have been shown to play more creatively than kids who spend a lot of time with electronic media," says Liz Baird, director of school programs for North Carolina Museum of Natural History in Raleigh. "Children who play outside have less of a chance to experience childhood obesity issues. There are reduced Attention Deficit Disorder symptoms. They have a stronger connection with the natural world and the world around them."

Baird, the creator of Take a Child Outside Week, concedes that technology has its place, but we need to strike a balance between that and time out in the world.

For her, this epiphany came as she was walking her dog one spring evening. As she walked through her Raleigh neighborhood, she saw the blue glare of televisions coming from the windows of nearby houses. The thought occurred to her that we have National Turn Off the Television Week, why not a week dedicated to getting children outside?

The idea was further bolstered by a critically acclaimed book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder," by journalist and child advocate Richard Louv. The book details how children are no longer playing outside, encumbered by organized activities and overdoses of docile technology.

The antithesis of all that is called free-play and it used to be a basic rite of the childhood experience.

Both Baird and Pendergraft are 46 and grew up in the 1970s in urban areas. Their childhoods were void of electronic lures that kept them inside and both recall a time when it was common to play outside and have a special place under a tree or in the woods.

"In my childhood we went outside. We walked to school," recalls Pendergraft.

Baird remembers a similar experience and both adults have worked to pass that on to their children. However, both women agree people may have a fear of letting their children outdoors these days; the publicity about abductions and pedophiles is prolific and may tend to shape our thinking.

Yet there are opportunities to get our children outside, even if it's in the yard. And that's what Take a Child Outside Week is all about.

Baird's initial idea began in May 2006. While she envisioned this idea one day catching on across the country, she was merely planning on a regional event, focusing on Raleigh and other parts of North Carolina.

Baird had no idea that at its inception, organizations coast to coast would be clamoring to participate and promote this old-school notion of getting children outside to play and explore.

"Word got out," Baird says.

"There is an organization, Children in Nature Network, and they hosted a meeting of organizations nationwide and Canada who get kids outdoors. In that group I presented my idea. The business cards flew back. Everybody wanted to be a partner with us. I think we have 100 partners right now."

Groups like the Audubon Society already had standing plans for events during the week. What they have done, says Baird, is use the newly formed Take a Child Outside Week to help promote their events that essentially encourage introducing children to nature.

"As a result, there are events planned all over the country," say Baird.

So a simple premise, letting kids play outside, has become a national movement. And, according to many experts, it's necessary if we want to ensure that future generations have the advantages of the natural world previous generations may have taken for granted.

"If you talk to kids and ask them what they did outside today, most of them will say it was with organized sports," says Baird. "You get the sense they are disconnected from the natural environment."

For more information on Take a Child Outside Week go to www.takeachildoutside.org

Robert Kelly-Goss writes for The Daily Advance ( Elizabeth City, N.C.). E-mail: rkelly-goss (AT) coxnc.com

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