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Playing outdoors is vital for kids


Date published: 10/10/2010

By MICHELE MUNZ

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann sees the most extreme cases of stressed, depressed and anxious kids. At least once a week, she said, she cares for a teenager who has tried to commit suicide.

"It's frightening," said Berchelmann, a pediatric hospitalist at Barnes-Jewish, Missouri Baptist and Progress West hospitals.

When she inquires about healthy activities in the teens' lives, almost none mention anything outdoors. They went to summer camp once, they say, and that was wonderful.

Berchelmann said she notices her most carefree patients have opposite lives.

They are covered in ticks after being out catching frogs, got a hook stuck in their ear while fishing in a creek 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, building forts or playing tag, studies show. Yet they spend more than seven hours each day in front of a screen.

TUNED OUT, STRESSED OUT

Last month, the 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.

"American kids are out of shape, tuned out and stressed out because they're missing something essential to their health and development," said National Wildlife Foundation education director Kevin Coyle. "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."

The report is part of the foundation's Be Out There movement, one of numerous campaigns under way at the federal, state and local levels to connect children to nature. The growing effort was sparked by Richard Louv's 2005 book, "Last Child in the Woods," which dubbed the effects of the lack of green in children's lives "nature-deficit disorder."

Ron Lovett, 31, of St. Louis, was a child before computers and cell phones permeated households. He spent his afternoons with friends playing "army," skateboarding and carving on tree trunks.


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