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What strengthens immune systems, improves eyesight, reduces stress levels, supports physical fitness and enhances critical thinking and problem-solving skills?

These examples only scratch the surface of the benefits children can receive by spending time outdoors.

Research continues to show that outside time improves mental, physical and social health of children and adults alike, and it is especially important to child development.

Unstructured play, planned activities and nature-based education all play important roles in supporting the children in our lives.

Occurring annually from Sept. 24-30, Take a Child Outside Week is celebrated by organizations throughout the country.

The initiative encourages adults to connect children with the outdoor world around them.

On average, children are spending half as much time outside as they did only two decades ago. The increasing disconnect is troubling, given what we know about the links to child development.

Additionally, children today may have less knowledge about local nature than previous generations, but they are much more informed about global environmental threats.

Bridging that gap from indirect exposure to direct engagement is important to support today’s children in building a better tomorrow.

One common challenge in this endeavor is motivating a child to spend time away from the security of a cozy couch and the ever-present allure of screens.

While it can be a tricky balancing act, there are ways that technology can enhance our outdoor experiences. Using the internet is a good way to plan a trip together and build anticipation, and a camera can help capture memories to look back on and generate excitement for a new adventure.

There are several smartphone apps, such as iNaturalist, that can even help you to identify plants and animals and learn more about them.

Another challenge is the busy life of an average adult (especially caregivers). Finding time for a grand outdoor adventure is simply not feasible for most people, but outdoor time does not always need to include a time-consuming excursion.

Gardening can improve immune systems through exposure to helpful bacteria in soil. Snowball fights are a good way to develop social skills and an understanding of boundaries. Biking together on a neighborhood street is great practice for safety and risk assessment, and a walk among trees is beneficial to both mental and physical health.

Take a Child Outside Week offers an opportunity for outdoor programming, encouraging new ways of getting outside and supporting healthy development through outdoor play.

The Anita Purves Nature Center is planning a suite

of related programs from Sept. 18-26. You may also consider visiting a nature playscape for some unstructured playtime, such as the ones at Anita Purves Nature Center and Homer Lake Forest Preserve.

The goal of Take a Child Outside Week is to inspire children and adults to prioritize time spent outdoors — not just during one week in September, but throughout the entire year.

Liz Baird, the progenitor of the initiative, says it best: “I always end by saying my honest hope for the week is that one day, it won’t be needed.”

David Subers is the environmental public program coordinator for the Urbana Park District. Email him at dasubers@urbanaparks.org.

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