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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 15, 2016 3 years ago

Moving childhood back outdoors

In the last 20 years, childhood has moved indoors.

School has begun and along with it, a plethora of activities, homework and new routines. It seems that almost every moment of our children’s days and evenings are scheduled. When they aren’t in a classroom, chances are they’re being shuttled to ballet or soccer, most of the time fixated on a screen in the car or in their room.

In the last 20 years, childhood has moved indoors. Today, according to the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, the average American child spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and as much as seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen. 

Dear reader, I can almost hear your, “What else is new?” response, but don’t tune this out. It’s worth thoughtful consideration. Here’s why: Childhood obesity has doubled during the past 20 years. Our kids consume more ADHD medications than in any other country. And on the flip side of that coin, pediatric prescriptions for antidepressants are also on the rise.

What’s the remedy for stressed out, out-of-shape kids? A familiarity with the natural world. Yes, the great outdoors. As reported in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces. From the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, we learn that exposure to nature enhances children’s social interactions from close relationships to value in community. And no surprise here: The Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion cites outdoor play as an important strategy in combatting obesity as well as keeping kids fit.

A heron walks amongst the greenery at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Birdwatching is just one activity to get kids interested in nature, which can boost their health.


Nature is just around the corner

We are blessed with almost countless natural resources in our neighborhood. While it’s still hotter than Hades right now, cooler days are ahead. So grab some water, some sturdy shoes, the kids and get cozy with the great outdoors. Some ideas:

  • Oscar Scherer State Park, a few miles south of Osprey off of U.S. 41 or the Legacy Trail for walkers or cyclists, is a delightful piece of nature smack in the center of development. Its nature center has an interactive exhibit for kids and a weekly kid-centric program. We started our granddaughter hiking on the lake trail at 3 years of age and plan to graduate to the scrub jay guided walk held on Sunday mornings. Oscar Scherer is one of the few remaining habitats of scrub jays. They are spritely little birds, very friendly and a perfect entry into the practice of birding. The park provides habitat for gopher tortoises as well, and in the fall, it’s common to see these beautiful reptiles lumbering out of their burrows. 
  • Myakka River State Park is 9 miles east of I-75 on State Road 72. You might think that everyone has been to Myakka, but surprisingly enough, not so. If you are in the latter group, this park is a must-see. It offers a wide variety of trails for hiking and cycling. There are opportunities for fishing, canoeing or kayaking, and wildlife spotting. 

Starting at the bridge over the Myakka River, alligators take center stage. They are fascinating critters that require absolute respect. Also in that category are feral hogs that call the park home. You might also see deer, bobcat, and even a Florida panther. Certainly, you will experience wading birds, raptors such as osprey, eagles and owls, and the occasional snake. Remember, wear shoes, not flip-flops. 

One of the best kids activities at Myakka is the canopy walk. Completed in 2000, this structure is the first public treetop trail in North America. The walkway between the two towers is suspended 25 feet above the ground, 100 leafy feet long. The northern tower soars 74 feet in the air and offers spectacular views. In addition to this engaging lesson in nature, the canopy walk provides an introduction to philanthropy, for the names of individuals and groups who contributed the funds to make the canopy walk possible are engraved on the boards of the tower. 


Farther afield

There are many options to choose from for a daytrip; however, my go to is always the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary east of Naples. The sanctuary encompasses the largest remaining virgin bald cypress forest in the world. And it is the site of the country’s largest nesting colony of federally endangered wood storks. A boardwalk meanders through the swamp and offers not only a taste of wild Florida but history, too. Corkscrew was the site of plume hunters in the early 1900s — men who killed egrets and herons for their plumes to embellish fashionable ladies attire. That’s when a fledgling Audobon Society first took note of the swamp. Lodgers followed the plume hunters, eager for the cypress and by the early ’50s, the forests were near extinction. That’s when the Audobon Society stepped in and purchased around 5,000 acres preserving this property forever. 

The last time we were there in March, an immature hawk followed us tree to tree around the sanctuary. A close look into the swamp revealed a raccoon sitting in the crotch of a cypress washing his breakfast. And we watched a pileated woodpecker work on a spot high up in what is probably a 300-year-old tree. 

Guess what? It was all streaming real.

Kristine Nickel

About the author
Kristine Nickel is a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. For over 30 years she has relieved her stress by writing features for publications across the country.

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