6 Easy Ways To Boost Your Child's Ecological I.Q.

Health & Wellness on 07.16.11
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Photo: USFWS/Southeast / Creative Commons

It's a gorgeous summer day -- the air is fresh and the sun shines strong. Despite the great weather, perfect for engaging in some outdoor play, you find your child parked in front of the television, engrossed in a video game. 

Make no mistake: kids nowadays are spending more and more time plugged in, glued to screens or gadgets, instead of spending valuable time outdoors. It's become so prevalent that there's even have a name for the phenomenon: nature deficit disorder

Risks with too much screen time

One may think that it's no big deal, but according to a recent study, American children aged 8 to 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day indoors in front of a computer or gadget, rather than playing outside. 

Not surprisingly, a number of potential risk factors comes along with this increasingly sedentary and passive lifestyle, including a whole host of potential negative developmental impacts, ranging from obesity to attention disorders and depression, not to mention the bigger picture where our kids are increasingly clueless and disconnected from the natural world

But it's not just about the developmental health of our children, it's also about increasing their ecological literacy -- the intimate understanding and connection with the natural environments that we ultimately live in and depend upon. So if you are already well aware that your kids need more quality time outdoors, read on for some constructive (and fun) ways that you can boost the ecological I.Q. of your kids.

1. Unplugging or going on a digital diet

One of the easiest ways to begin is to set healthy limits on computer and television use for your children. The point is not to completely restrict use, but to establish a reasonable amount of time spent in front of a screen -- no more than 1 to 2 hours per day. Try to keep TVs and computers out of kids' bedrooms, keep them off during mealtimes and stock up on non-electronic alternatives like board games, or doing some sports, art and music activities.

But perhaps your situation may require more extreme measures, like a "digital diet" where you may need a day or even a "screen-free" week. To be fair and to encourage your children, parents can also participate in this -- we all know that the tried-and-true "set an example" principle can work wonders. All this equates to the whole family having some real quality time together to do something other than sit, zombie-like, in front of their screens.

2. Family gardening

Another great way to get your kid outside is to plant a garden together, in the back yard or even on your windowsill. If you do have the space, you could plan a simple family garden project with your child, selecting seeds and familiarizing them with the process of growing plants, as well as continued care and maintenance. If you're a terrible green thumb, there are alternatives to the conventional garden, like an easy container garden. If you don't have access to an outdoor space, there's always the option of joining a local community garden.

3. Stimulate your child's curiosity about nature

Children are naturally curious. Stimulate this inherent quality by getting them to observe, think about and sense their surroundings. It could be through quiet walks through a park, nature trails, a visit to the botanical garden, or collecting specimens together. Invest in a good plant identification guide that you can bring along. Even installing a bird-feeder in your backyard will provide ample opportunities for encountering new discoveries. But these activities do not necessarily have to be too structured, just allow your child to follow his or her natural curiosity freely. 

4. Camping in your backyard

Nothing is more fun than making yourself at home in your own backyard. With a tent, a few sleeping bags and some homemade refreshments, it's bound to be a memorable experience. If local ordinances allow, you could even have a bonfire -- but make sure you and your kids understand fire safety basics. Of course, there's also the time-honored tradition of taking your family camping.

5. Stargazing

Depending on where you live and how much light pollution there is, stargazing with your child is another satisfying activity, guaranteed to elicit a sense of wonder and joy, no matter their age. You could point out constellations or track changes in the night sky together. There are plenty of great resources and activity ideas in book form or online.

6. Enroll your child in a "forest kindergarten"

For parents who are looking for a more holistic way of educating their kids in a natural setting, there's the option of enrolling your child in a "forest kindergarten" or "nature preschool." 

Described as "schools without ceiling or walls," this is a type of preschool education pioneered in Europe where youngsters spend the majority of the school day outdoors, engaged in play and exploration through role-playing, imaginative games and do-it-yourself projects. Forest kindergartens have been around since the early 20th century and are gaining traction in the United States, even in urban situations.

More on Outdoor Activities

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