Dirt, Bugs, and Raindrops, Oh My!

from Wildlife Promise

Guest post by Alyson Weinberg

There’s a lot of talk these days of “thinking outside the box.” Whether for kids in the classroom or companies in the marketplace, it’s an ability to be cultivated. People who think outside the box are risk takers, good problem solvers, and work efficiently and creatively with others. Spending time outdoors as a child imparts many of those skills. According to Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Lab, interviews of all potential candidates include questions about their play experiences as children because they’ve found a direct correlation between hands-on play and superior problem-solving skills. But how do you take risks and work creatively; how are you a resilient, strong problem-solver when you’ve, literally, grown up inside the box?

Putting the Fun, Not Fearful, Foot Forward into the Outdoors

A child born in the last two decades has spent most of his youth indoors, surrounded by the roof, four walls, and floor of his home. Protecting children’s safety is of course paramount. But when childhood is a sanitized, climate-controlled environment it does our children no favors. They become like fairytale characters, locked in high towers for their own protection, conditioned to fear the very things a child’s instinct draws them to, from digging in dirt and mud to feeling the sun on their face.

“We have shifted our culture from one that is engaged in a healthy, interactive, and imaginative way to one that is inwardly facing, sedentary and expecting things to be fed to us,”

says Dr. Michael Rich, Director of the Center of Media and Child Health, Children’s Hospital Boston,leading kids to feel unmotivated and even afraid of playing outdoors. In a country where childhood obesity rates have more than doubled in the last twenty years, where we are the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world, and where the use of antidepressants in pediatric patients has risen sharply, we cannot afford to succumb to fear when kids’ health and happiness depends on them growing outside the box.

The outdoors is a wonderful teacher, offering kids so many important, good lessons, such as how to respect and care for nature, how to be resilient in the face of challenge and imperfection, and how to use your imagination to make your own fun.

Here are some top fears kids (and grownups) have about playing outside and some information to combat them:

Coming Clean! (Fear of Dirt):

Many happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults in American society grew up with dirt under their fingernails—it’s an occupational hazard of making mud pies. But kids today have been bathed in hand sanitizer since birth and may not see getting messy as a good thing. It is! Studies have shown that plating in the dirt isn’t just fun, it can boost overall happiness and health, due to naturally occurring bacteria in soil that help fortify children’s immune systems and stimulate the production of serotonin, improving mood.

So go ahead, let your kids get dirty. And remember: “Most of the germs lurking about our environment and that live on our bodies are not only harmless; they’ve been with us for millennia,” says “Martin Blaser, MD, professor of Internal Medicine at New York University.

Don’t Bug Me! (Fear of Insects)

For kids who are afraid of bugs, playing outside can give them the creepy-crawlies. But, insects are a fun way to learn about the natural world, according to April Gower, executive vice president of the Entomological Foundation.

“Children love to observe ants crawling in an ant farm, or to see a praying mantis move its head. For younger children, insects are still at the eye level.”

So how do you help your insect-phobe relax and enjoy time outside? Experts say the best way is to model calm behavior yourself so as not to reinforce the fear. Education can also help: go to www.entfdn.org and explore the educational resources section for kids’ activities and projects.

Running Hot and Cold! (Fear of Inclement Weather)

While you’re not going to let your kids play outside during a blizzard or hurricane, many days of the year, it’s perfectly fine to play outside even when it’s technically too hot, too cold, or too rainy. Taking kids out in different weather builds their mental and physical flexibility and resilience. Common sense measures are the word of the day, so kids don’t miss out on the fun. On very hot days, seek shade, slather kids in sunscreen and offer water and popsicles to stay hydrated. In very cold weather, bundle up, coat lips and cheeks with petroleum jelly and keep hot chocolate on hand. And in the rain, wear your boots, bring an umbrella… and don’t forget to sing in the rain!

Alyson Weinberg is a Washington DC-based writer specializing in issues concerning children and families. She is an award-winning speech writer, feature writer and communications strategist and the former editor of Spirit, the magazine of the Special Olympics movement. Alyson’s articles and editorials have appeared in national print media, textbooks, and on the web. She and her husband Josh live with their two daughters, Josie and Raina, in Potomac, MD.