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From the December 2011 Conservationist

A group of kids and two adults snowshoeing on a sunny day

Photo: James Clayton

Beware: Nature Ahead!

A humorous look at the benefits of enjoying the outdoors

By Gloria Van Duyne

Every time I turn around there seems to be another reason for people to be afraid of nature. The news is full of stories about how mosquitoes carry West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis, deer ticks can transmit Lyme disease, poison ivy can cause an itchy and painful rash, giant hogweed and wild parsnip might give you second-degree burns, rattlesnakes-well, enough said there-and, of course wild animals could have rabies.

It's no wonder people hesitate to spend a day outdoors! But if you listen to all this hype, you and your children will miss out on all the beauty and restorative power that nature offers.

Two girls investigate the inside of a hollow stump
Kids explore a hollowed-out tree stump.
(Photo: James Clayton)

When I was young, I was always hiking in the hills behind our house with my dad and sisters. I even explored the nearby woods, creeks and fields on my own. I built forts and tree houses, camped and fished, caught frogs and minnows, climbed trees and then napped in their shade on a sunny day. There were hills to roll down, insects to watch, animal tracks to follow and special places to discover. I also loved helping to plant and harvest a garden, and especially enjoyed watching seedlings break through the cracked soil. All I had to show for these various adventures, or so I thought, was muddy sneakers, scraped knees and an array of permanently "planted" burrs and seeds in my sweaters.

Even when the weather turned cold, my parents "encouraged" me (a.k.a. kicked me out the door) to play outside. Though I was less thrilled about staying outside in the cold, I always found ways to have fun. There were leaves to pile up and jump in, and acorns and pinecones to gather and use as "ammunition." If there was snow on the ground, there were snow forts and snowmen to build, or sledding and snowshoeing to do. Following tracks could occupy me for hours, as I tried to sneak up on the critter that made them. I was rarely successful, but had fun making up imaginary stories about what animal made them and what they were doing.

Today, it's different. More and more, children's outdoor play is planned and occasional, not impromptu and frequent. As a mom, I tell myself that I will make sure my son gets outside as much as possible. I want Jack to experience the same kind of excitement I did when exploring the woods, but I've discovered that's easier said than done. In fact, I can honestly say that I don't think my son goes outside enough. I must admit: after work, school, homework, dinner and chores, I'm too tired to think about how much time Jack spends outside. And I feel guilty about this. I carry around guilt like the weight I gained after I gave birth to Jack: it's always there, it's uncomfortable and it's really hard to get rid of.

Even when presented with outdoor activities, my son is not always the most enthusiastic. When told of our plans to go to a local nature center one morning, my son responded, "I don't want to go. It's so boring! All we do is walk in a big circle!" I felt like a huge failure. Whose son was this? He couldn't have gotten that disinterest from MY side of the family. After all, I love the outdoors.

I discovered that if I made it fun for Jack, and allowed him to be part of planning our adventure, he was much more receptive to our outings. For instance, when I suggested we try and find as many things as we could on our hike that began with each letter of the alphabet, Jack rose to the challenge and practically ran the entire length of the trail trying to spot everything first.

Three boys with their hands cupped by their ears listening for wildlife
Kids listening intently for wildlife (Photo:
Thomas D. Lindsay)
There are many studies and articles that tout the myriad benefits of playing outside. Experts say that when children are outside, they are observing, exploring and even problem-solving. Just standing in the sunshine triggers our bodies to produce Vitamin D, necessary for strong bones. In addition, some studies show that exposure to trees and nature increases immune function, making us healthier. Now that's my kind of workout-just being outside! Other cited benefits of being in nature include stress reduction, reduced aggression, better concentration, and a general increased feeling of happiness. Maybe that's why my mom always said, "It's a nice day. Go outside. It's good for you."

But how do we get past this fear of the perceived dangers of being outdoors? I believe in the old saying, "knowledge is power." Last summer I saw a six-year-old boy hitting some shrubs on the edge of the woods with a stick. His mother warned, "Don't do that, there might be poison ivy." If we learn how to identify plants and animals that can be harmful, then we can take appropriate precautions. This eliminates the fear, allowing us access to the world of nature that is both exciting and beautiful.

So, go ahead, take your family outside; it's good for you.

Gloria Van Duyne works for DEC's Division of Lands and Forests.