Combating nature deficit disorder in winter

Photo: istockphoto.com/Sean Locke

It's cold outside so why send the children out to play? Aren't they going to get sick, hurt themselves and come back cold and miserable? Actually -- just the opposite.

The average North American child spends less than 15 minutes per day outside but up to five hours a day playing video games or watching television. It's probably even more in the winter. Playing in the winter wonderland is good for our children, helping them stay healthy and fit.

Fat and unhealthy
With childhood obesity on the rise, (it's more than doubled in the last 30 years) pediatricians are urging parents to get their children outdoors during the winter months when everyone tends to gain weight from a more sedentary lifestyle.

Benefits outweigh the problems
Parents worry about children catching cold and getting sick. However, it's been proven that it's not necessarily the cold weather that brings on the flu but time spent indoors without the benefit of fresh, circulating air. Getting outside for some fresh air actually helps to cut down on colds and flu.

Good for body and soul
Another reason to get our children outside is to keep them connected to nature. "Based on previous studies, we can definitely say that the best predictor of preschool children's physical activity is simply being outdoors," says James Sallis, program director of the Active Living Research Program, "and that an indoor, sedentary childhood is linked to mental-health problems."

Get over your fears
Parents play the biggest role in getting our children up and moving. With the majority of humanity now living in cities -- more detached from nature than ever before -- and with the decline of rural space, the rise of parental safety concerns, and liability restrictions on unsupervised play, children's opportunities to simply enjoy neighbouring woods and streams has become limited.

"A kid today," writes U.S. author Richard Louv, "can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest – 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." This sense of "nature loss" led Louv to coin the term "nature deficit disorder," explored in his book Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder .

Fear of the open
Claiming that our society teaches young people "to avoid direct experience with nature," Louv writes that this lesson is taught by schools, families, even outdoor education groups. "Our institutions, urban/suburban design, and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom --while dissociating the outdoors from joy and solitude."

Louv cites numerous psychological studies indicating the importance of time in nature for a child's development and in helping to overcome a wide range of medical and psychological problems, from attention deficit disorder to obesity, depression, and even diabetes.

Turn off the TV
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of total screen time (that includes TV, videos, and computers and video games.) Use that free time for physical activities.

Winter games
It doesn't take much to get your children involved in winter. What kid can resist the exhilaration of tobogganing or gliding around on the ice. Your basic sled can cost as little at $10 and second hand ice skates are available at a variety of sports stores or second hand shops. Add a hockey stick and puck and you can start your own team. Skiing and snowboarding take a bit more equipment and some instructions.

But enjoying winter can be as simple as taking a frosty walk together, building a snowman or constructing a snow fort. When was the last time you made a snow angel? Read more about how to Keep the kids warm and safe while playing outdoors