In the 2005 influential book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv makes the strong case for the linking some of the increasing challenges faced by youth today, like obesity, depression and attention disorders, with a lack of unstructured outside play-time in nature. Today’s kids are busy with structured activities, homework, social media and technology. Many kids never get to just “play” outside with friends. The result may be rewiring our kids in ways that decrease their health and well-being.

The good news is that we can still find many easy, free ways to get our kids outside where they can clear their minds, observe, be curious, explore and be active. Spring is the perfect season to develop some new nature-based habits. Remember that an organized outside sport game, (although fun and active), is not an example of “unstructured time outside.” Here are some unstructured ideas.

Make it Simple

Make up a reason to get the family outside every day. If you have a dog, walk the dog together. Get a ball and play catch. Explore a path in a different forest preserve every weekend. Encourage your kids to invite a friend to come along.

Flexible Discovering

Fostering unstructured time outside may mean doing a little less planning and a bit more discovering. Pack a picnic and head to the nearest park. The picnic provides the mission to get everyone out. But once you are there, simply let the fun come to you. Look for bugs, dig for worms, take a field guide for birds or Illinois plants. Stare at the trees. Feel the breeze. Fly a kite. Paint with watercolors or sketch with pencils. Try photography. Relax and let the kids lead the fun with their endless creativity.

Help from the Experts

Every regional park district, forest preserve, and state park offer frequent opportunities to get outside. The Chicago Botanical Gardens and Morton Arboretum do as well. Check with all these organizations when you want to discover nature in the company of experts. As summer nears, many park district summer camps are held mostly outdoors.

Getting outside should be every family’s mission. Let your kids brainstorm all the ways that they like to play outside and write every idea down. Then use the emerging spring season to start tackling this “bucket list” of outside fun.

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Chris Palmquist is an USA Triathlon Elite Coach, USA Cycling Elite Coach and Youth/Junior Coach with 19 years of coaching experience. She has written for Chicago Athlete Magazine for more than 20 years. As a Team MPI Head Coach, she has coached athletes to regional, national and world class success. She is a USA Paratriathlon National Team Coach and Team USA Coach at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, ITU World Paratriathlon Series and High Performance Camps at the Olympic Training Centers. Chris coaches youth and junior triathletes as Head Coach for the MMTT Youth Triathlon Team and for USAT at national Junior Skills Camps. In 33 years as an athlete, she has raced several sports including triathlon (13 Ironman), collegiate rowing (Cornell 83-87), canoe/kayak, cross country skiing (20 Birkebeiner) and road bike racing. Chris is married with two kids. Favorite Quote: “Do Simple Better” ~Joe Maddon

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