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Nicholas and Peter on Schuyler Island (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Nicholas and Peter on Schuyler Island (Photo: Brian Mann)

With summer comes the fight for parents to get the kids outdoors

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Summer is officially here and across the North Country schools are finally letting out. Not so long ago, that would have meant children escaping outdoors.

But researchers - as well as parents - are seeing children spend more and more time in front of computers and television.

As Brian Mann reports, there's growing evidence that a summer spent in the fields and woods isn't just fun. It's also healthy and maybe even necessary.

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Richard Louv is author of <em>Last Child in the Woods</em>

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The sun pours down, striking sparks across Lake Champlain, as Brian Mann paddles from Port Kent to Schuyler Island, accompanied by his son Nicholas, 14, and his friend Peter Curtis, 14. As Brian fusses with the gear in the paddle, the two boys are ready to get away and explore. For them, the trip to the island is stimulating in a way's that different from their electronically-saturated day-to-day. When asked how the paddle was, they reply with enthusiasm. "Beautiful!" "Not hard at all!" So far, so good.

In a world filled with organized activity and electronic entertainment, American children are spending less and less time outside. At a conference this spring in Lake Placid organized by the Adirondack Research Consortium, Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, who raised her kids on a dairy farm, led the discussion.

"Children are being disconnected from the environment," she said. "They're being disconnected from the outdoors."

 The type of fun that Nicholas and Peter are having on Schuyler Island--exploring, making up games, just hanging out--is largely to their benefit.

Paul Hay runs the education outreach program at Huntington Forest in Newcomb. He is co-founder of a project called children in nature. According to Hay, kids who play in unstructured environments, like the woods or their backyard, learn an essential developmental skill called executive function.  

"Children who are out in the backyard making up their own rules, whether its kick the can or sardines or a new game--we create the rules, we figure out who's in charge, who's on which teams, and we order our own world," says Hay. "Well in the forties the executive function [levels] in children at age three is now something we're seeing in seven-year-olds."

The reason kids are developing executive function so much later, Hay says, is that they spend tons of time being led around by the nose, often my computer games or TV shows.

"American children ages 8 -18 are spending on average 7.5 hours connected to some sort of electronic media on a daily basis."

Meanwhile on Schuyler Island, Nicholas and Peter are building an enormous bonfire, dragging and rolling massive logs. When asked about nature deficit disorder, they provide some pretty candid responses.

"I don't spend any time outdoors anymore, it's true. Most of the time I'm on the computer--I'm on Facebook or playing a game," said Peter. "I can't tell if it's more fun--but something instinctual tells me it is. It's exercise, way more exercise than I normally get."

And when offered the chance to be outdoors over a lifetime subscription to World of Warcraft (a game popular among online communities and teenagers alike) Nicholas choses, after some mild consideration, to be outside.

But Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods," says Nicholas and Peters' experience isn't the norm. "One little boy told me he preferred playing indoors because that's where all the electrical outlets are," he said.

But taking kids to a desert island isn't necessary, Louv notes, so long as they're able to get outside and play independently.

"Forty-four hours a week plugged into some sort of technology is part of this issue, but so is the over-structuring of childhood that so many parents are doing. So our kids spend either indoors, watching TV or playing video games, or they spend it in these organized activities, with a lot of adult supervision and surveillance," says Louv.

Of course the complication is when you're outdoors, anything can happen. On Schulyer Island that blue sky fades away, replaced by rain. Peter just shrugs and grins. "It's raining," he announces. And while it never rains on Facebook, Peter is surrounded by a warm bonfire and good company and doesn't seem to mind.

The truth is it takes time and effort to get kids outdoors--all that cajoling, the fight against the lure of the TV and computer. It's tough for a lot of parents. But the payoff--watching Nicholas and peter drift off into the woods--is worth it.

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