Your Outdoor Exit Strategy
Help Your Kids Find Their Way Outside
By James M. Bullock
Everybody needs an exit strategy. Big business abounds with over-stuffed binders containing all the important details. The mightiest of militaries maneuvers through theirs with the utmost precision, patience and a little politics. Oh, and let’s not forget those fortune-telling personal financial planners that reassure us time and time again that ours is absolutely air tight.
But as necessary as these exit strategies are to everything from world peace to our own personal retirement benefits, it’s time we focus on another plan of action that has the power to literally change the shape of children and the planet forever – an exit strategy to help our kids shed the shackles of an indoor sedentary lifestyle and find their way back outside, get active and reengage with nature.
By definition an exit strategy is a plan for removing oneself from a difficult situation if it arises. Well, guess what, we have a situation! The escalating number of idle, overweight and outdoor-deprived children in America and throughout the world is staggering. Indoor sedentary trends, inadequate exercise and poor nutrition are the primary culprits.
The amount of time children spend outside playing, exercising and exploring continues to decline at a near-debilitating pace. Kids devote three hours a day less time playing outside than children did two decades ago. Research has revealed that reduced time outdoors is producing a kid-nature separation generation that is contributing to the high rates of childhood obesity and other serious health concerns for our children as well as widespread disinterest and, at times, disrespect for the natural world around them.
Play and consistently connecting a child to the outdoors has been shown to improve achievements in physical, social, emotional, and educational development as well as encourage life-long environmental advocacy yet many children today are spending less time exercising and outdoors and more time tethered to the TV, computer, or engrossed in video games and other electronic traps. With these broader implications of sustained indoor sedentary behavior coming to light, we need to move the focus of the fix from not only managing a child’s weight but an overall healthy lifestyle that includes daily outdoor engagement.
A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says free and unstructured play is healthy and - in fact - essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient. The report, "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds," is written in defense of play and in response to forces threatening free play and unscheduled time.
Children on average now consume more than 7 ½ hours a day of screen time and less than 25% of school-aged children engage in daily physical activity. Reductions in school recess and physical education (“PE”), less open space to explore, more traffic in our neighborhoods, untidy parks and antiquated playgrounds, fears about our children’s safety, and let’s not forget that most moms, dads and caregivers are simply leading much busier lives just to make ends meet. These are just some of the many challenges we face as we get our children active and on the move outdoors.
However, despite this mounting evidence on the short term as well as long-range benefits of active outdoor children, it seems like many families today need a GPS just to find the front or back door in their own house. A worn carpet path leads us directly to the pantry and the not-so-secret stash of double-stuffed of Oreo cookies while a half dozen randomly placed remote controls guide us like Hansel & Gretel’s bread crumbs to an all-to-convenient source of mind-numbing household electronic entertainment devices. Yet as often as we enter our homes through the front door, the way back outside seems to elude so many of us.
Every family needs a firm yet flexible plan; let’s call it your Outside Exit Strategy, a commitment to spend less time indoors held captive by the TV, computer and video games (screen time) and more time outside. We’re not talking about making major vacation plans and booking pricey airline tickets for the beach or even packing the minivan for a well-deserved road trip to Grand Teton National Park (although this is something you should eventually do!). Nope, nothing nearly that involved or expensive.Your Outside Exit Strategy is simply finding a fun and fulfilling way for your family to get outdoors and on the move everyday or as often as possible for some unstructured play as well as planned activities.
Although children need structure in their life as it creates a sense of security and accomplishment, overscheduling a child with too many organized activities is not ideal. However, simply hoping that there may be some extra time to play outside after all the “important things” are completed at the end of the day is not the preferred path either.
At the core of Your Outdoor Exit Strategy is the development of a Weekly Outdoor Activity Plan. Allocate your child’s time for outdoor activities just like you do for work, school and family meals. Arranging a particular block of the day for outdoor activities builds anticipation, encourages participation and creates an opportunity for the whole family to jump in.
Growing a new generation of health conscious, environmentally connected outdoor children is not a one- time event, it’s a process. A daily routine that includes outdoor activity communicates the family's shared values and goals regarding a healthy outdoor lifestyle.
Get an erasable white board or chalkboard and write down the daily outdoor activities planned for the week. Variety is key so focus on a balance of activities but let each family member have a voice in the weekly selection process. Post the plan in the kitchen, family room or anywhere for all to see. You will be surprised with the positive conversations and preparations that will naturally occur over the family’s Weekly Outdoor Activity Plan.
Things will come up from time to time but don’t let that derail you. Be firm about getting your kids outdoors and on the move each day but remain flexible with your outdoor activity plans. A flat tire may put a kibosh on the family bike ride so go for a walk, play hide and seek or organize a neighborhood trash pick up instead – just roll with it but roll outside! Your outdoor family time does not have to be costly or complicated as the simplest of activities create priceless memories and will make a world of difference in your child’s health and environmental advocacy.
Your Outdoor Exit Strategy centered around a Weekly Outdoor Activity Plan will help teach your child discipline, leadership, goal setting, personal and social responsibility along with the pure joy of outdoor family fun.
Here are a few pointers to get you and your family started with your own personal Outdoor Exit Strategy:
First of all, memorize the mission statement and make it your household mantra as you pursue your Outdoor Exit Strategy:
Never Ignore a Child’s Need to Play, Exercise and Explore
Next, refer to this helpful chart and get started today!
Without question, today’s technology and hectic family schedules offer many trappings that have little to do with physical activity and the great outdoors. My advice, devise a plan then run (or walk) to your nearest exit, step outside and change a child’s life forever.