Work or play, families need to take it outside

09/22/2011 12:00 AM

09/22/2011 7:46 AM

Are you outside right now? Did you take the newspaper onto the porch? Are you surfing the Internet on a laptop or smartphone in the yard? Do you look for ways to get outdoors every day, in heat, cold, rain or shine, and take your kids with you?

Statistics say probably not.

Otherwise we wouldn't have events like Saturday's eighth annual "Worldwide Day of Play," an initiative designed to encourage families to turn off the television and play outside. (It was started and is being promoted, with no hint of irony, by Nickelodeon.)

We wouldn't have TV Turnoff Week every April, the Great American Backyard Campout each summer or the National Wildlife Federation's "Be Out There" campaign.

And I wouldn't have been so immediately drawn to Rebecca Cohen's book, "15 Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect With Your Kids."

According to a recent poll by The Nature Conservancy, only about 10 percent of American children say they spend time outdoors every day. Our world is ruled by screens and schedules, and what little time children do spend outside is seldom free.

Cohen, a gardening expert from Virginia, took a walk with her two sons one cold New Year's Day and discovered something:

"Reflecting on how naturally happy we were whenever we spent time outside, how much we enjoyed each other's company, and how time seemed to slow down in a magical way, I thought, 'What if?' " she writes.

"What if I got outside every single day, and what if I could get my kids to come along?"

Her resolution resulted in a transformative year for Cohen's family — and a catalog of outdoor activities that require little planning, expertise, time or money. Some ideas from the September chapter:

* Reserve a few minutes in the morning to play outside before leaving for school. Kick a ball around, take a short walk or just watch the birds.

* Learn about the monarch butterfly migration, then head outside to find some.

* Feel the breeze. Sit still wherever you are, close your eyes and pay close attention to the wind. Try to figure out which

direction it's blowing.

* Find a local farm or orchard where you can harvest a fall crop.

* Create an outdoor checkerboard with a flat stone and permanent markers, and use two sets of different colored rocks for playing pieces. Rediscover outdoor games like horseshoes, croquet and bean bag toss.

* Do homework outside.

I paused on that last idea, so simple but unconventional. Then earlier this week, as the sun shone and leaves glistened, I urged my kids to grab their backpacks and head outside.

I made a bowl of popcorn. Hannah and Jack carried it up to our backyard treehouse, where they munched and chatted happily while completing their work. Jack used his math book as a paperweight. They watched a giant wolf spider climb the tree trunk. As homework sessions go, it was delightful.

Like Cohen, I realize that getting outside is easier on a beautiful fall day than in the dead of winter or in August's stifling heat. But as her book illustrates, even snippets of time spent outside strengthen family bonds and nurture the soul.

So get out there. Every day. Consider it your homework.

About Suzanne Tobias

Suzanne writes about family life on Thursdays. She has covered local news for The Eagle since 1990. Suzanne is a native of North Carolina and earned an English degree from North Carolina State University.

Find her on Twitter: @suzannetobias

Contact Suzanne at 316-268-6567 or by emailing her at

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