The Lake County Parks Department has joined a nationwide initiative to encourage kids to get outside and enjoy being in nature, says Sandy Basala, superintendent of visitor services for the parks department.
“I grew up in a time and raised my children at a time when children played outside,” Basala says. “But there are so many factors now, from safety and stranger danger to over-scheduling activities and the abundance of technology that keeps kids today indoors.”
The “Leave No Child Inside” initiative began with the book “The Last Child In the Woods,” by Richard Louv, which talks about the lack of contact children today have with nature and playing outside.
Lake County Parks is working with Chicago Wilderness and numerous other organizations nationwide to encourage outdoor play, says Basala.
“What (Louv’s book) pointed out and what we see in the parks department, too, is that young people are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with being outside and playing in nature,” Basala says. “We don’t want to exclude the activities they are involved in, but we want to encourage parents to include activities that kids can experience nature with and grow from.”
A wide variety of events can dovetail with the “Leave No Child Inside” program, like a visit to Buckley Homestead to participate in sheep shearing.
“Something like that gets a family out for the afternoon and exposes children to something they wouldn’t normally see,” she says.
But the activity doesn’t have to be a structured activity within a park setting, Basala says. It can be as simple as eating dinner outside, pitching a tent in the backyard or letting your kids play in a pile of dirt.
“It’s a simple, simple thing. It can be something like coming up with a scavenger hunt to go out and explore your neighborhood,” she says. “It’s the concept that’s important.”
Basala says research is showing that the lack of outdoor play can slow developmental growth, and increased time outdoors may also help children with autism and other disorders.
In addition to being important as a way to encourage exercise, it is also an important way to encourage an appreciation for nature and conservation.
“It’s important for kids to feel the sun on their face or the wind in their hair, or just being exposed to something bigger than you,” she says. “The more distant children are from nature, they lose that connection and don’t understand how valuable our resources are and how important it is to care for them.”
A simple 30-minute hike through a county park can be a great experience for parents and children alike, Basala says.
“Even on a short hike, they get engrossed in the environment and being out in the woods,” she says. “Their imaginations take over. As adults, we view nature, but children get engrossed in nature.”
Most importantly, encouraging children to move around and play doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or take large blocks of time.
“Sometimes, a big old dirt pile and a bucket is good enough,” she said. “Children should know they can run on the grass and don’t have to keep off of it.”