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The great outdoors

Published December 15. 2012 09:02AM


It's a bright summer afternoon, and 4-year-old Chrissy, clad in shorts, a t-shirt and her beloved cowboy boots, is clambering up the wooded bank that slopes up from the reservoir behind our house.

She grabs a tuft of onion grass, clutching it in her small hand as she climbs. Every so often, she pauses to examine a plant, a bug, an interesting rock. Her hands are dirty, and there are bits of twigs in her tangled blonde hair.

She's so absorbed in discovering the world of nature she doesn't even notice her Dad, who is quietly following about 15 feet behind her.

About five years later, the scene repeats itself, this time with Chrissy's younger sister, Jamileh.

Now adults, Chris (she dropped the "sy" many, many years ago) and Jamileh are strong, confident, happy and successful young women who know their own minds and tackle challenges eagerly through applications of logic and creativity.

We credit our decision to foster independence and encourage risk-taking with a safety net for their strength of character.

Spending lots of time outdoors was a big part of that philosophy. The girls grew up in the country, with woods and fields and wetlands. While Chris and Jamileh were growing up, we didn't have television. We did have lots of books, and the great outdoors.

In the fall, we would make a day of going out to clean out the spillway from the reservoir, and the stream through which our water line from an underground spring ran. In the winter, we'd go out to cut fire wood, bringing along a hibachi and a piece of marinated London broil to grill for lunch. We learned to identify animal tracks in the snow, and had fun sledding down our ice-covered lane.

In the summer, we picked enough tiny wild strawberries to make jars of jam. We dug clay from the stream to make "fossils," and learned to identify species of birds. In the spring, we planted tomatoes and green beans.

We were very fortunate to be able to raise our daughters in that environment.

Being outdoors is good for body and soul.

A 2009 study by Taylor and Kuo found that being outdoors, particularly in a park setting, can help alleviate symptoms of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Australian researchers have found that being outdoors reduces children's chances of being nearsighted. It's well-known that children who spend time playing outdoors are less likely to be overweight.

But in recent years, children have been pulled apart from nature, by parents fears, or by the lure of ubiquitous electronic devices.

"Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That's exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child," writes author Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

"A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest," he writes, "but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move."

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