Growing up in the 60s and 70s, we kids heard that all the time. "Go out and play! Get out of my hair." We spent hours and days exploring the woods behind the house, wandering through the neighborhood "bridle trail," and exploring nearby fields. We climbed trees, and looked out over the neighbor's roof... that was scary! We spent hours hanging out on friends' jungle gyms, riding bikes, and checking out wildflowers up and down the road.How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Four Generations, the source of this frightening picture.
Nature is good for us.
Besides the rights and responsibilities of growing up, what else have our kids lost in this cultural change? Lots. Research tells us that unstructured time in nature has huge benefits for kids. Study after study shows that kids are losing out. As preschoolers, kids are already less active than is recommended, and obesity is more common. By school-age, kids are unable to identify common plants, and are more myopic from the decrease in the amount of long-distance focus that children's eyes used to get outside in nature. Free-play and contact with nature is declining dramatically. Children’s Nature Deficit: What We Know – and Don’t Know details 45 studies on these factors and more.
So what, you ask? Research shows that nature is good for us. Mental health benefits include stress and anxiety reduction, ADHD symptom reduction, and improved focus and cognitive function. Yes, we think and feel better on nature! The physical benefits of free-play in nature are just as impressive: better vascular health, less vitamin D deficiency, lower BMI (body mass index), better physical fitness, less childhood asthma, and less myopia. Healthy Benefits to Children form Contact with the Outdoors & Nature summarizes dozens more studies on these benefits.
But how do I get my kids outside into Nature?
That is the question. Screen time is addictive. Kids are learning loads and enjoying computer games, social networking and more. How do we get them to put down their devices and go outside? It's simple: we don't. Instead, let them use their devices outside!
Here's a game that's nerdy enough to appeal to gifted kids of all ages. Start on your computer or other device. Look up geocaches near you. Then use a GPSr or your smartphone with an app to track down the caches, using the latitude/longitude (lat/long) and some clues about the size and difficulty of the cache. When you find it, sign the paper log inside, and log your find on your device.
What are these geocaches? Caches can be many things. A cache may be half-mini-marshmallow-size magnetic "nano" attached to a park bench, or an ammo can or large plastic container hidden in the woods, or even bigger. Larger geocaches usually contain "swag," fun little toys for our youngest cachers. Caches may take you to a park you never knew existed, or a historical place that you've been passing by all your life. Caches may take you for a long hike in the woods, or might first have you solve a complex puzzle at home before you can discover the latitude and longitude of your search. They may lead you to events, where other geocachers of all ages get together to have a picnic, or to clean up a park in a CITO (Cache In, Trash Out) event. There are different caches for all different types of cachers!
And where are all these geocaches hiding? Everywhere around you! There are caches in urban, suburban and rural areas of every continent on Earth, plus one on the International Space Station. Caches on terrains rated 1 are handicapped accessible. Terrains 1.5 and 2 are stroller accessible - even the youngest kids can handle these caches. A terrain 3 cache might be a little ways up an easy-to-climb tree or a steep hill. You might want to wait until the kids are a little older before trying to find caches rated higher than 3, but don't rule them out. I've found a terrain 5 geocache - specialized equipment required - by borrowing a paddle boat from a local picnic park to cross the river to the cache. Tons of family fun!
Geocachers love a challenge, and geocaching is full of personal challenges. Can you find a cache with a difficulty/terrain (D/T) rating of 5/5, where 5 terrain means "specialized equipment required?" Can you find caches in every state you travel to, or every county within your state? We cheated on this challenge: the first state we've cached every county is in the nearby state of Delaware... it only has three counties.
Get Started Geocaching!
With over 2.4 million active geocaches around the world, there are bound to be a few near you. To find your first, you need to sign up on Geocaching.com and set up your free account. Then click on Play, Hide and Seek a Cache, and type in your address. Pick a geocache from the local list (it's best to start with a low difficulty cache that's been found recently), then go out and find it! You'll find caches near home, school, work, and everywhere you travel. Geocaching is a great way to find your way around a new city, or find hidden treasures near your home.
For pointers on getting started, read Hoagies' Gifted | Geocaching 101: Finding Your First Geocache. Some of my favorite geocaches are Puzzle Caches. Puzzle Caches may be site puzzles, where you go to the location and explore, seeking answers to specific questions and using those answers to find the lat/long of the cache. Or they can be more complicated puzzles, from visual puzzles to ciphers to any kind of puzzle that a cache owner can think of... some as complex as ARML math problems, and some as simple as finding the text hidden on the cache page. Read Geocaching 103: Solving Puzzle Caches for lots more on both solving and creating your own Puzzle Caches.
Geocaching encourages out-of-the-box creativity. Who creates all these caches? Geocachers do! Once you've found 40 or 50 caches, and have an idea what you're looking for and what good cache locations might be near you, consider hiding your own cache. The instructions on Geocaching.com walk you through the steps. Finding caches is fun; creating your own cache container, theme and/or puzzle to make a unique hide of your own is even more interesting! Read Geocaching 104: Creating and Placing Your Own Geocache for more ideas.
Go out and play. Go out and geocache! The kind of play that gifted kids and adults love!
Photographs taken at Crouching Chief, Hidden Cache geocache in Wissahickon Park, Philadelphia.