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Encourage youngsters to experience the outdoors - January 26, 2012

Young children are engaged in science all the time. Asking questions, developing hypotheses, observing, exploring -- all of these things are science-related activities.

Spending time outside, immersed in nature, facilitates inquiry and discovery. It stimulates the senses and engages the mind and body. Providing meaningful outdoor experiences and the chance for young children to form positive relationships with nature is critical to their cognitive, emotional and social development.

Studies show that students who spend time outside have lower incidences of childhood obesity and depression. Outdoor play can help mitigate the effects of attention-deficit related disorders, too. Creativity is also enhanced; nature is inspiring. Students who have the opportunity to learn outdoors and participate in environmental education even have improved test scores.

Educating the next generation to better understand and care about our environment will help to ensure the protection of our precious natural resources, which helps to sustain life on our planet.

Think back. What were some of your favorite outdoor experiences as a child? When speaking with people 30 and older, I often hear memories of full days spent freely wondering through local fields and woods, mucking about it creeks and ditches, with the only instruction from their mothers being "be home for dinner."

Those experiences are becoming increasingly rare. Now, parents are often hesitant to send their children outside for a variety of reasons.

Fears of snakes, spiders, bees, mosquito- or tick-borne illness, exposure to the sun and other elements, and fears associated with negative interactions with other people can contribute to parents' reluctance to send their children outside. Teachers often share the same hesitations. And if, as a parent or a teacher, you aren't comfortable in the outdoors, it would, admittedly, be difficult for you to lead children in outdoor exploration.

To help keep things in perspective, I urge people consider a few things: although media coverage has increased, child abductions have declined since the '70s; there is only one venomous species of snake on Delmarva, the copperhead, and documented bites are extremely rare; and there are many precautions that can be taken to minimize risks associated with ticks, mosquitoes, and other outdoor threats.

I am not suggesting that you send your children outside for eight hours, unsupervised.

I am, however, encouraging you to send them outside for shorter periods of time, in safe locations, with supervision when they are younger and guidance as they get older.

Teachers and parents can also avail themselves of local resources including parks and other public lands and the people who work there.

Park rangers, naturalists, camp counselors, zoo and museum staff, and other non-formal educators have a lot of experience with the outdoors and receive special training and professional development which better prepare them to facilitate meaningful connections with children and nature in a safe environment. They can be your guide.

Experiences with nature don't need to be elaborate. You don't need to be an expert. You just need to be open. Unstructured experiences allow children to explore their creativity. With a little bit of guidance, you can help children hone their observation skills. Encourage them to make comparisons -- find things that are big and small, rough and smooth, or wet and dry. Look for shapes together. Find circles in the eye of an animal, the center of a flower, and a knot in a tree, for example.

Create temporary art with found objects such as sticks, and leaves, and seed pods. Carefully observe the behavior of a bird or a tiny insect. Watch a worm burrow into the earth. Look for animal tracks.

Take notice of the smells associated with the place you're exploring. Describe them. Close your eyes and listen for a few minutes. Settle into a comfortable spot and sketch the view, or your creative interpretation of it.

The Maryland Coastal Bays Program, along with its partners in education, is committed to providing high-quality professional development opportunities for teachers and non-formal educators.

Our newest training program, along with Salisbury University's Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art and Assateague State Park is Growing Up WILD, in partnership with the Council for Environmental Education.

If you're interested in finding out more, please contact Carrie Samis, education coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program at csamis@md

Samis is education coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

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