PhotoLibraryOne of the greatest gifts I received from my parents was not a tangible gift at all. It was a gift of an unquenchable curiosity about nature.

Mom and Dad loved the outdoors, and they spent their free time in nature with their four sons, fostering in us a fascination for nature that lives on today. Mom always encouraged us to “find something to do” outside, and I often followed Dad as he trained his beagles and in later years hunted with him in the fields and forests of western Pennsylvania.

Admittedly, it was a lot easier to get kids outside back in those days. There were far fewer of the distractions that keep youngsters indoors. My hometown of Pittsburgh launched KDKA, the world’s first commercial radio station and later the first round-the-clock commercial television channel. At first, that was the only channel we could watch on our 16-inch Crosley television, which seemed to take forever to warm up.

These days, children are bombarded by hundreds of television channels displayed on high-definition, flat screens complete with theater-quality surround sound. They create an endless stream of text messages on their cell phones and have access to the Internet, games, gadgets and seemingly endless other high-tech distractions.

By today’s standards, my family did not have a lot of money to buy toys. Mom and Dad paid $7,000 for our home, and Dad worked 12 hours or more a day to earn his $60 weekly salary. Computers or other electronic gadgets didn’t exist. The only “cell phone” in our world was on Dick Tracy’s wrist.

Yet we never thought of ourselves as poor because we were rich in imagination and exploration. Several hundred acres of field and forest awaited us just outside our front door, and we explored every inch, finding simple joys at every turn. Examples:

  • I remember watching in wonder as we observed a doe nursing her twin fawns at a stream bank.
  • We were inspired by the size of a great horned owl, which startled us as it silently glided overhead before landing in a nearby white pine.
  • Collecting rusty nails and scraps of wood from nearby home construction sites, we built tree shacks in the aspen stands.
  • We built earth-filled log dams in Girty’s Run and stocked the impoundments with bluegills that we transplanted from a nearby lake.
  • We emulated Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett by building a network of “wilderness” trails with some neighborhood friends and our pet beagle.

Before many parents turned to prescriptions to calm their hyperactive kids, recess periods in our elementary school’s playground provided important outlets for students like me to expend pent-up energy. As much as I enjoyed three daily recesses, the best part of my day was running into the woods after school.

Today, I worry about how much time kids spend indoors in front of televisions, computer screens and game devices. I worry, too, about how little connection children have with nature and how little physical exercise they are getting. Based on my own experiences, I believe unstructured outdoor time allows children the freedom to explore, create and imagine. Kids who spend at least an hour each day outdoors generally are healthier—physically and mentally—and, according to recent studies, they sleep better.

Citing a rise in childhood obesity rates and a litany of health problems related to sedentary lifestyles, Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), chairman of the Senate’s Subcommittee on National Parks and co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Outdoor Recreation Caucus, insists that getting kids out into nature should be a bipartisan concern. Having worked at the Colorado Outward Bound School for 20 years, including a decade as its executive director, he knows what he is talking about.

At a recent congressional briefing on the benefits of reconnecting youngsters with nature, Senator Udall and Representative Ron Kind (D-WI) announced their intention to introduce Senate and House versions of the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act. If enacted, the legislation would support state, local and federal strategies to connect our nation’s youth with the outdoors through natural play, recreation such as camping, hiking, hunting and fishing, public health plans, service learning and other initiatives. For the sake of our children, I hope the bill receives bipartisan support and is passed quickly.

In the meantime, each of us must do our part to get children into the outdoors to discover the wonders of nature, as I did many years ago. It’s a gift that continues to renew my spirit and one that I hope to pass on to my grandchildren.