How do you like to spend your free time? Hanging around with friends? Reading or drawing? Doing things with your family? Playing sports? Watching TV? Playing and exploring outside?
As it turns out, spending time outside is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Parents, teachers, doctors and others that spend time with young people are worried that many of you are not spending enough time outside. So, what's the big deal about being outside? Let's take a closer look . . .
Nature Deficit Disorder
Nature Deficit Disorder — yuck, that sounds pretty bad! Actually, this term is used to describe what can happen to kids (and even adults) when they do not spend enough time outside. Spending time outside is really good for you in many ways. You are healthier, your ability to pay attention is better, and you just feel better about yourself. Being outside also helps you learn to take care of the world around you.
How can being outside make you healthy? Well, for starters, one of the best things that happens when you are outside is exercise. Being outside makes you want to run, jump, climb, ride your bike, play and explore. All those things exercise your body. This helps to build strong bones and muscles. A strong body can help you fight off germs that make you sick.
Exercise also helps you stay a healthy weight. When you exercise, your body uses up the fuel you get from your food. If you do not burn off that fuel, it can build up as fat and you become overweight. Being overweight is no fun! Extra weight is hard to carry around and you get tired easily. It can interfere with how your body works, causing serious diseases like diabetes (dia-a-BEE-TEES). Some overweight kids even start having the same kinds of health problems as adults! Being outside is a great way to make sure that you get the exercise you need to be healthy.
Spending time outside also makes you feel better about yourself. Have you ever felt sad? Maybe you had to move away from your best friend or you did not do as well on your math test as you thought. Things like these can make you feel sad and that is normal. Spending some time outside can help you work through many feelings such as sadness, disappointment or anger. No one is exactly sure how it works, but being outside often helps us feel better and able to think about what is bothering us.
One thing we do know is that being outside helps you relax. When you relax you are better able to concentrate and think. When you are not relaxed, you feel stress. Remember how you felt right before you had to give a talk in front of your whole class? Or the way you felt when you were trying out for a part in the school play? Well, that is stress. We get tense, nervous and worried. Being stressed for a short time is not bad. But if you are stressed out a lot, it can be hard on your body and your mind. Many people find that a quick walk outdoors or even looking out a window can help them feel less stressed out. Next time you have a big test first thing in the morning, see if you can walk to school or ride your bike. You might be amazed at how much better you feel about your test when class starts.
Being outside even helps students do better in school! Think about your science class — would you rather learn about trees by listening to your teacher talk about trees or by going outside to look at trees? If you go outside not only can your teacher talk about trees, she can also have you feel their bark, collect leaves, make bark rubbings, and listen to the wind through their branches. Chances are, you will remember much more about trees if you can be outside with them.
But doing classroom learning outside is not just good for science. Studies show that being outside helps students do better in all subjects. This finding is so important that many schools are creating outdoor classrooms and schoolyard habitats where students can have lessons outside and explore during recess. Does your school have an outdoor classroom? If your school does not have an outdoor classroom, talk to your parents, teachers and principal about it. Interested students just like you have played important roles in getting schools to create outdoor classrooms.
Do you have a pet at home? Part of having a pet is taking responsibility for its care. By taking care of your pet, you learn to enjoy your pet and take care of it the best way you can.
People who enjoy the outdoors also know how important it is to take care of the world around them. These people respect the natural world by doing things like not littering and staying on trails when they hike, mountain bike or ride an ATV. When they go hunting or fishing, they follow the rules. They camp in the proper places and leave their campsite better than when they found it. At home, they might recycle and not waste water or energy.
Most of these people learned to be responsible for the outdoors when they were young. And they did it by being outside doing a lot of the same things you like to do. Some grew up with families that did a lot of outdoor activities. Others were Scouts who went camping and worked on outdoor badges and projects. And many of them just spent time outside playing, observing and exploring. They learned about being responsible for the world around them. A lot of these people loved being outside so much that they went into outdoor careers such as wildlife biologist or forester. These professionals are counting on you and your friends to be outdoor kids so you can carry on the tradition of enjoying the wonderful world around you. Who knows? Maybe you will grow up to be an outdoor professional yourself.
Easy Ideas for Outdoor Fun
Now that you understand why being outside is so important, how do you start? It's pretty simple. All you need to do is open the door and go outside. You do not need to buy expensive equipment or take a long vacation to a far-away place. Your own backyard, your best friend's yard, a neighborhood park, a nearby vacant lot, or even your schoolyard can offer really neat things to do and observe. Just make sure that the place where you are going is a place that is safe to explore. Also, make sure that your parents know where you are going.
You also need to be patient. Sometimes the place you are exploring might look pretty boring at first. A quick glance seems to tell you that nothing is around, but are you sure? Imagine how much Lewis and Clark would have missed if they did not take the time to take good observations! Read through the set of fun, easy ways to enjoy the outdoors that begin in the next section. Then go outside and have fun!
Keeping a journal of what you see is a fun way for you to begin to learn about your yard or neighborhood. Many people like to keep a list of the wildlife they see in their yard or another special place. You can also record the weather, including measuring how much rain or snow fell and what the temperature was at different times of a day. Write, draw, paint, make leaf rubbings, or similar things in your journal. Maybe you could visit one place every month and write about how it has changed from the last time you visited. Draw pictures of those changes. Keep a list of what you see and hear on every visit. Before you know it, you will have a lot of really interesting facts about your place. You might observe something unusual that turns out to be a valuable discovery to science. Many interesting observations have been made by people who just took the time to observe and write it down.
Your journal is as unique as you, and you can include whatever you want. All you need is a notebook, a pencil and some crayons, paints or colored pencils and you are set!
Walk and Ride
One really easy way to spend time outside is to walk or ride your bike to school. Walking and bicycling are great exercise. Talk with your parents to help you find the safest route. Make sure your route has sidewalks and safe crossings across busy streets. Walk or ride with your parents a few times to make sure that the route is a good one. Get your brothers, sisters or friends to walk or ride with you.
When you walk or ride your bike, you can observe many things on the way to school. You can really notice the changing seasons when you are outside every day. One day, your sweatshirt is warm enough and the next, you need to wear a jacket. If it is raining, grab an umbrella or a raincoat and enjoy the sound of raindrops on your hood and the smell of rain. If it is snowing, hold out your mitten and catch some snowflakes to see how many different shapes you can see. In spring, watch for early flowers and listen to the birds as they sing. Can you pick out the clear whistle of the black-capped chickadee as is sings 'cheese-burger' from the trees? See if you can put words to the songs of other birds. But just make sure you are not late for school!
When we think of taking a hike, we usually think of how many miles we will go. On a micro-hike, your distance is measured in inches instead of miles. Many of the creatures that live outside are, in fact, very small and difficult to see. A micro-hike will help you observe these tiny but important animals.
Take a yardstick or measuring tape and lay it down anywhere that looks interesting. Measure off about one meter or three feet. Get down on your hands and knees and start looking. Sometimes a magnifying glass is helpful when you are taking a micro-hike. What do you see? Try micro-hiking in a variety of locations to see what differences you can find. Take a micro-hike on the trunk of a live tree or the trunk of a tree that has died and fallen down. What about in your garden or a field of grass? You might find that there is a lot more to see than what first meets the eye.
I See You?
This is a fun game that you can play with a group of friends in an open area like a meadow or a park with trees and shrubs. One of you will be the Seeker while the rest of your friends hide — except that they need to hide in a place where they can clearly see the Seeker.
First the Seeker stands with his or her back to the group while everyone hides. Then the Seeker turns around and tries to find everyone. But the Seeker cannot move around at all. When the Seeker sees someone, he or she calls out the color of clothing that they see like, “I see a red and blue shirt.” That person then has to get up and come and help the Seeker, but like the Seeker, they cannot move around either. See how many of your group you can find. Is it hard? What happens to the hiders that peek a lot? What about those that keep still? Play several rounds to see who is the best at seeking and at hiding.
Star Light, Star Bright
Space is a place that has fascinated us forever, and you can explore it right from your own backyard. To observe stars and planets, wait for a clear night when the moon is a tiny sliver. Find the darkest place in your yard and turn off the lights in the house. Get a lawn chair or just lie on the grass and look up. Binoculars can be helpful when you are looking at planets and the bigger stars. To help you identify what you see, get a star chart from your school library or print one off one of the many astronomy sites on the internet, such as these ones from NASA.
Do some stargazing once a month to see how the constellations rotate across the sky. Watch the sky during a meteor shower like the Perseid meteor shower in August or the Leonid meteor shower in November. Lunar eclipses are really neat to watch too. During a lunar eclipse, you can see the shadow of the earth as it moves between the sun and the moon. An eclipse can take a while, so why not get your whole family or some friends in on the fun. Bring sleeping bags and make it a backyard campout to watch the eclipse or explore the stars.
Butterflies, Hummingbirds and Vegetables
Butterflies, hummingbirds and vegetables, oh my! Planning and planting a garden is a lot of fun. You get to play in the dirt and you get to eat what you grow. Check out the soil to see what you can find. Is it warm or cold? Does it stick together when you squeeze it or fall apart? Many interesting creatures live in the soil and can really help your garden. See if you can find some of them.
Once you plant your seeds, how long does it take for them to come up? Do the plants flower and if so, do they attract butterflies? Plant some sunflower seeds and measure how fast they grow using your family as measuring sticks. Is the flower bigger than your little sister? Look out, it's taller than you! Wow, it's taller than your parents!
Another garden that is fun to have is one for butterflies and hummingbirds. In these gardens you grow mostly plants that are native to your area. This means that they will not need special care once they are established. By planting native plants, you can attract more species of butterflies and hummingbirds than you might by planting something that is not native to Idaho.
So, how do you start out? First, find a good place in your yard that gets sunlight during most of the day. It can be small or large. Then you and your family need to do some research to see what kinds of plants are best. The Idaho Native Plant Society is a great place to start. Many local nurseries carry native plants too. Come up with a plan of what you want to grow and how you want it to look. You can find many resources in the library and on the internet to help you. Then go outside and play in the dirt!
Once your garden is planted you must be patient. Native plants sometimes take awhile to get established. As your garden grows, you will attract more and more butterflies and hummingbirds. These are some of our most important pollinators. Planting a garden just for them will bring you many hours of enjoyment. Make sure to spend some time watching to see how many different kinds of butterflies visit your garden. Do different ones come at different times of day or during different times of the summer? What kinds of flowers do they like the best? Do hummingbirds like the same color flowers as the butterflies? Wow, figuring out all these questions will keep you visiting your garden all summer long!
Did you know that feeding birds is one of the biggest hobbies in the United States? Bird feeders are a great way to invite wildlife into your yard. Watching birds at feeders is something you can do all year. Some people keep lists of the birds they see using their feeders. In fact, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology sponsors Project FeederWatch every winter. People all over the country and in Canada watch their feeders all winter. They report the numbers and kinds of birds they see on certain days. This has provided a huge amount of information about our birds in the winter. Your family could become FeederWatchers too, helping scientists learn more about birds.
To get started, you need a bird feeder or two. You can build some feeders yourself or you can buy them. It is nice to have two different kinds of feeders because not all birds feed in the same place. Quail and most sparrows like to feed on the ground. Finches and chickadees perch while they eat. Hang your feeders from a pole or tree branch fairly close to some shelter like a tree or shrub. This makes the birds feel safer because they can quickly fly to cover if danger approaches. Black-oil sunflower seed is the best all-around food for many birds. Other good seeds include millet, safflower, cracked corn and nyger thistle. If you have never had bird feeders in your yard, it might take a while for the birds to find the feeders. Once they do, you will probably see birds often.
By watching the birds at your feeder, you can learn a lot about them. You will see which birds change with the seasons. In the spring, the birds you were seeing all winter might leave and some new species begin to visit your yard. And in the fall, your spring and summer visitors will leave and your winter birds will come back.
Sometimes, feeders attract small hawks. If you look outside and see a few birds sitting as still as statues, look around the yard for a small hawk. Most of the time, the hawk leaves without dinner, but even if it is successful and catches a bird, remember that they need to eat too.
If you enjoy feeding the birds, your family can do some things to improve the bird habitat in your yard. Planting native trees and shrubs will provide shelter and food. Native wildflowers add to the food that your birds can eat. Put up nest boxes and platforms to attract nesting birds. Set up a birdbath; it is a lot of fun to watch a bird take a bath! Try not to use chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides because these can harm the birds that visit your yard. A better habitat will help the birds, and it will also make your yard a more enjoyable place for you as well.
I've Got a Bite
One of the best ways to enjoy time outside is to go fishing. The simplest way to fish is with a pole, line and a worm. Tie your line to the pole, tie a hook to your line, put a worm on the hook and put the hook into the water.
Eventually, you will probably want to get a fishing rod and some tackle. Talk to your parents about what you need. If they are not sure, local fishing clubs, sporting goods stores, or your Fish and Game office can help you out. In some parts of the state you can check out fishing equipment at your library using your library card. This gives you a chance to try equipment before you buy it. See if you can attend a fishing class or clinic. These are a great way to learn how to fish or become a better fisher.
As you become a more experienced fisher, you will learn where the fish like to hide and what they like to eat. Learning to think like a fish can help you become a better fisher. Plan a family camping and fishing trip for a really fun summer weekend. And remember that even if you do not catch anything, you can still have fun being outside exploring around a pond or along a riverbank.
So Now What?
These are just a few of the many, many ways you can enjoy spending time outside. Use your imagination to come up with neat outdoor hobbies and projects. And don't forget things like building forts, running through the sprinkler, lying in the grass and watching the clouds, reading your favorite book under a tree, and making up outside games with your friends. If you become an outdoor kid, one day you might be the outdoor expert talking to Joan Cartan-Hansen on Science Trek!