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Last Child on the Couch

How 10 grassroots innovators are helping kids get active outdoors

Enlist Teachers and Principals
Education bureaucrats will never write an exam question on the proper way to skip a stone. So American schoolchildren–who on average already spend less than 30 minutes a week outside–will continue to fidget at their desks. But not the kids at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, a preschool in Mystic, Connecticut. They’ve gone outside every day except for one since the school opened two years ago. "If you get outdoors–even for 15 minutes a day–you are instilling nature as a regular part of a child’s life," says director Davnet Conway Schaffer. Research also demonstrates that kids who play outside develop longer attention spans, better coordination, and more creative problem-solving skills. Help teach your educators and principals that outdoor learning is real learning, and give them resources for standards-based outdoor education. Schaffer recommends teaching kits from the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (vinsweb.org), which provides hands-on environmental curricula from preschool to high-school levels.

Reach Older Kids
Mud puddles will entertain a toddler for hours. But take a teen on a family hike, and they’ll be BOOMS (text message lingo for "bored out of my skull"). Keeping children tuned in is what Chip Donahue does as a teacher and as co-founder of Kids in the Valley (kidsadventuring.org), a hiking club in Roanoke, Virginia. "You can’t motivate teens with threats or bribes," Donahue explains. "Instead, you need to discover what they really want–and channel it into the activity." During a recent hike, he saw a father yank away a video game from his son, who quickly became surly. "I gave the boy an assignment to organize the other kids to check out a creek and report back to me," says Donahue. Within a few minutes, he’d forgotten his anger and his video game. "Adults forget that kids have very little control over their own lives," says Donahue. "The outdoors is one space where they can be the bosses." Let older kids plan hikes, set goals, and, most importantly, bring along friends.

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