Now that spring has sprung, it's a great time to get the kids outdoors to enjoy nature.
But you might find that to be a struggle.
Childhood has changed over the past generation. More kids are plugged into electronics and unplugged from nature, content to stay indoors. Many times, we adults are content to let them.
"For some kids, the only time they get outside is when they are made to go," says Sarah Peeples of Summerville. "They may go outside during recess at school, or for an hour a couple of afternoons a week for soccer practice, but they never just go outside and play unless somebody makes them."
In fact, a child is six times more likely to play a video game on a typical day than to ride a bike, according to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 80 percent of children under age 2 and more than 60 percent of children 2 to 5 do not have access to daily outdoor play, according to the organization Playing for Keeps.
Fewer people spend time hiking, gardening, biking or even just looking at the night sky than did a generation ago.
"Parents are afraid to let their children roam unsupervised, and with good reason," says Peeples, a former counselor at an environmental camp. "There are many dangers out there now that we didn't have to worry about when we were kids. But because of these fears, today's kids are really missing out."
Experts say that unstructured outside play has many benefits and is important for wholesome, balanced development. Research has shown that outdoor play helps children manage stress, stimulates imagination and creativity, and helps them concentrate and be better problem-solvers, in addition to the obvious physical benefits, according to the Children & Nature Network.
Conversely, living a sedentary lifestyle can lead to health problems.
Richard Louv called attention to the trend in his 2005 book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder." Louv says that the lack of nature in many children's lives plays a role when it comes to problems such as obesity, attention disorders, depression and stress.
So how can you encourage your kids to get off the couch and go outdoors?
First, set reasonable limits on TV and computer use. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting television and video game time to a maximum of two hours a day.
Peeples says she usually balances the time on the computer with time outdoors for her daughters, who are 4 and 5.
"I'll let them play on the computer for half an hour and then we go outside for half an hour," she says. "I think we are all in a better mood after we've been outside hunting bugs and collecting leaves."
The National Wildlife Federation, which has a Web site called http://greenhour.org that gives parents tips and suggestions for getting their children excited about nature, encourages a daily "green hour" — unstructured play and interaction with nature.
"I can remember playing outside for hours when I was younger," says dad Robert Hart of Charleston. "My mom would tell us to come home when the street lights came on. Kids today don't play like we did back then."
Another culprit is today's overscheduled agendas.
"By the time we get home from school and after-school activities, there's barely enough time to eat dinner, do homework and take a shower before bedtime," says Hart.
If your schedule is too busy to afford a full hour, take advantage of the time you do have, even if it's just 10 or 15 minutes.
Make the outing as stress-free as possible. Don't look at it like another chore, according to the federation.
Encourage independent exploration.
"I learned when I was a camp counselor to allow exploration," Peeples says. "Sometimes we go for a walk around the block and it takes an hour because we count the number of birds we see or we stop to watch the clouds. Sometimes, the tendency is to hurry the girls along, but I try not to do that." For younger children, just the chance to explore in their own backyard is often enough.
"I can watch my children play in our backyard while I am getting supper ready," Peeples says. "That gets them out from underfoot and lets them get fresh air at the same time. Often, they come in for supper full of stories of what they were doing and what they found out there.'
As they get older, you might want to plan regular excursions to a local park or forest to hike, bike or canoe. Make the time outdoors productive by participating in a cleanup effort, such as a beach sweep, or if you feel really adventurous, go camping for a weekend.
"Since my children were babies, we have been hiking with them in the mountains of South Carolina and North Carolina," says Sharon Becker of Mount Pleasant, whose sons are now 21, 17 and 14. "We have hiked in all types of weather, allowing us to enjoy the natural beauty of all seasons and requiring us to work together as a team."
The experiences not only have given her family a chance to be active and explore nature, but also have had some added benefits, she says.
"While many teenagers have little desire to spend any more time with their families than is necessary or required, it is heartwarming that my kids still love to be together as a family and enjoy these times as much as my husband, Howard, and I do," she says. "I think the key to our close-knit family is that since our children were younger, we created such wonderful times together that none of us want them to end, no matter how old we are."