Tuesday, December 9, 2014

2014 Toy List Top Pick - The Outdoors

Editors note: The holidays are upon us! Kids all over the country are making their lists and checking them twice. According to top 10 lists from around the Internet, electronics are among top requests of children again this year. That means kids will be racking up many screen hours during the holidays and in 2015. Parents and caregivers can also encourage kids to request toys and games that involve outdoor play. Today's guest blogger explains why it's important for kids to include items on their lists that will not only promote time outdoors, but counter act the effects of screen time.

Exploring Nature: The Idyllic Setting for Children

By Lauren Hasz, Healthline Writer

Many of us grew up being told to “go play outside.” We climbed trees, biked in our neighborhoods, swung on neighborhood park swings, explored ponds, built forts and enjoyed the outdoors. We didn’t think a thing of it. We were simply kids, and the outdoors was simply the place to be. Nature captivated us. Lightning bugs lured us out into the twilight. Autumn leaf piles were treasure troves. The sun kissed our faces and sprinkled freckles on our noses.

As a middle school teacher for six years and now a new mom, I’ve reached the sad realization that many of today’s kids haven’t been taught to value the outdoors or been given the opportunity to “be kids” and actually “play.” Elementary-school aged children are connected to iPhones. Middle school students talk to their friends through Facebook and social media. High school teens manage schedules too busy for outdoor “play.”

Technology has clear advantages and benefits, but when indoor activities replace outdoor exploration, we have to ask ourselves what consequences this next generation will face. We already know that the modern indoor lifestyle is leading to childhood obesity, learning disorders, and the earlier onset of illnesses and disease. But, could there be even greater health and cognitive risks associated with the technological lifestyle that sticks kids on the couch in their living rooms?

The new term “nature-deficit disorder” was coined in 2005 by author Richard Louv with the publication of his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In his writing, Louv concluded that, “An expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity and overweight, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses” (Children & Nature Network, n.d.).

It would seem, then, that the technological age in which we now raise our kids is contributing to developmental problems and can be summed up by the phrase “the epidemic of inactivity,” as Louv explains in his research.

However, as a mom, a very simple solution presents itself: (1) turn off my family’s technological devices for regular periods of time, (2) take my kids outdoors, and (3) enjoy the health and cognitive benefits of exploring nature. While the vast benefits may be hard to summarize, the support for these actions is certainly not lacking.

Health & Cognitive Benefits

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has documented studies that find that being in a natural setting, specifically in forests, boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves mood, increases ability to focus (even in children with ADHD), accelerates recovery from surgery or illness, increases energy level, and improves sleep (n.d.). For kids, these health benefits could be seen as even more vital than for adults, as children’s brains and bodies rapidly change throughout childhood.

The sheer amount of research out there creates an overwhelming case for encouraging kids to explore nature. The World Forum Foundation’s compiled list of research-backed benefits includes:

  • Increased creativity and observation skills
  • Development of imagination and a sense of wonder
  • Increased ability to handle stress
  • Stronger capability to focus
  • Enhanced positive feelings about others
  • Improved coordination, agility, and balance
  • Stronger cardiovascular systems and immune systems

As a mom and educator, I can’t think of a good reason why not to fight the detrimental affects of an increasingly urban, technological society by adding outdoor playtime into our children’s days. There may never be a perfect, idyllic time or place for this to occur, but we should search for local playgroups, community parks, and city trails if our own backyards are too small or nonexistent for good, old-fashioned play.

And, while we are encouraging outdoor play, why not make it a family goal. With the busy schedules most of us keep, we could all use a bit of stress reduction, greater focus, improved physical health, and an increased sense of wonder anyway. It might just be that sense of wonder that keeps our kids healthy and happy from infancy to adulthood and bonds our families together.    

Article Sources:

Children & Nature Network. (n.d.). About us: Nature-deficit disorder. Retrieved from http://www.childrenandnature.org/about/ndd/.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. (n.d.). Immerse yourself in a forest for health benefits. Retrieved from http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html.

Roth, Erica. (2012, Aug. 20). Childhood obesity. Healthline.com. Retrieved from http://www.healthline.com/health/weight-loss/weight-problems-in-children#Overview1.

World Forum Foundation. (n.d.). Research on connecting with nature. Retrieved from http://www.worldforumfoundation.org/working-groups/nature/environmental-action-kit/research/#cognitive.

Author Bio:
Lauren Hasz lives with her husband of nearly eight years and baby girl in Colorado where she pursues her interests as a writer, doula, teacher, runner, and all-manner of coffee and tea drinker. She is a vocal proponent of natural living and a distributor of therapeutic-grade essential oils. Follow her story at http://acupofbliss.wordpress.com.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Perfect Summer Vacation: Family Fun and Nature at Smuggler's Notch Resort

Last August we packed the family truckster and the four of us headed north to the Green Mountains of Vermont where we spent five days at Smuggler's Notch Resort, which is situated in one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse natural areas of New England.  Though it is well-known for winter kids programs and skiing, it also caters to families vacationing in the summer and provides ample opportunity to connect to nature.  In fact, it guarantees families will have fun.  With the help of its award-winning children's programs and ample opportunity for outdoor fun and exploration, we anticipated a great vacation.
The view from the top of Mount Mansfield
overlooking Smuggler's Notch Resort

Situated at the foot of Mount Mansfield, Smuggs (as it is fondly called) is located on Route 108 between Stowe and Jeffersonville.  We enjoyed the drive through the historic and beautiful Smugglers' Notch Pass and arrived at Smuggs on a sunny day and immediately noticed the breathtaking views of the mountains. Upon arrival we were welcomed by friendly staff and immediately felt like part of the Smuggs family.  The first thing we noticed is that kids were everywhere!  It reminded me of my childhood, with kids roaming free --- running, jumping, laughing and enjoying good, old fashioned summertime play in the outdoors.  Once we settled in, we immediately joined in on the fun and went for a hike around the often rugged paths of the resort.

Activities, Activities, Activities!
There are so many activities available at Smuggler's Notch, you would have to stay the entire summer to take advantage of them all.  There is truly something for everyone!  Between the children's programs, guided hikes and "wikes" (a cross between a walk and a hike), the nature center, eight heated pools, waterslides, splash pools (watch a YouTube video about Notchville Park water playground area.), a driving range, splash parties, bonfire sing-alongs, fishing, biking, climbing and the first of its kind canopy tour in Vermont, enjoying the outdoors is what it's all about at this resort!  You can opt to spend the entire time together as a family and enjoy the numerous activities geared towards families or can enjoy time separately and take advantage of the many kid and adult oriented activities and camps.

Summer Camp to the Max
My daughter's camp group on a hike
 We registered our six-year old daughter for three-days of the Trail Blazers camp as part of Summer Fun University.  It is Smugg's version of summer camp --- but this is no typical summer camp.  Hands down, it offers the most unique programs and activities I have ever seen or experienced and much is focused on nature and the outdoors.  The Trail Blazers are encouraged to appreciate nature through nature related games, arts and crafts, nature observations with simple gear such as nets and magnifying glasses, and easy hikes through forests and fields.  Not knowing whether Beaner would actually go to camp without crying or wanting to leave early, we quickly learned she was just fine and too busy having fun to even give her parents a second thought.  At the end of the day she raved about how much fun she had how her counselor was so terrific.  To this day, she still talks about her.  Her only complaint was that she was stuck in the kiddie pool with the non or beginning swimmers, even though she could swim.  This was a bummer and I tried to arrange for her to have access to the larger pool, but that would have a required her to be with a different age group.  She managed to have fun on the slides in the waterfalls, and  the time spent swimming was a small portion of the overall day and experience.  In the end, she had so much fun, she requested to attend camp for an additional day.

Fun for the Little Ones
My son on a nature walk for the little ones

The plan was for our son to also attend camp because we thought he would enjoy the Discovery Dynamos 3-4 year-old program, which includes similar activities to Trail Blazers.  Unfortunately, he wasn't fully potty trained, so he went to Treasures for two days.  Though he was not pleased with the scenario and loudly made us aware of the fact that he did not want to be there, my secret detective work revealed that he had a good time nonetheless.  I was immediately impressed with the mountainside facility, especially the cleanliness, organization and layout. The caregivers were friendly and caring and I could tell they enjoyed being with the little ones.  Budder also enjoyed plenty of outdoor time and went for walks, stroller rides, spent time in the wading pools and on the playground.  On the other days while his big sister was at camp, he spent time with Mom and Dad and we took advantage of some of the family oriented activities like the Bears and Berries wike and the Family Ties River Walk.  Both were fun and educational and I was impressed by the knowledge of the trip leaders.

We spent the late afternoons at the various pools, which were never overcrowded and situated in beautiful settings.  We spent hours enjoying the water and the pleasant atmosphere.  One thing we learned was that late afternoons were often interrupted with thunderstorms, which caused a bit of chaos when the lifeguards had to clear the pools.  However, I appreciated their concern for safety and after calling for a ride, we were always driven back to our condo, where we would safely sit on the covered porch and watch the amazing site of downpours and lightening in the mountains.

Smuggler's Notch Nature Center

We also enjoyed the resort's nature center and interpretive paths through the different areas of the resort that explained its efforts to be eco-friendly.  I was impressed by how the management and employees are committed to being responsible stewards of Vermont's natural resources. The resort is home to Bicknell's Thrush, a species of special concern in Vermont, black bear and an abundance of other fish and wildlife species.  Its habitat, wetlands and natural vegetation are managed with concern for creating a landscape that meets both the needs of the resort and its guests, as well as nature.

The property is huge and driving your vehicle is cumbersome and not eco-friendly.  You are encouraged to utilize the resorts free on-demand shuttle service to get from place to place, rather than your car.  Though we often tried to take advantage of the service, for whatever reason, we never were at the correct pick up spot at the correct time.  We found the system confusing and unorganized.  In frustration we ended up walking much of the time, which was great exercise for us, but tough on the kids.  However, when we did get it right, it was a pleasant ride and we were dropped off at the door of our condo.  If you do get it right, it's certainly better than driving or walking after a long day of swimming or hiking.  I personally would have preferred a system with scheduled stops at designated places, and eco-friendly vehicles.

Overall, our stay at Smuggler's Notch was fun, relaxing and memorable.  If the goal of your family summer  vacation is to connect with nature and have lots of good, old-fashioned family fun with many options for  activities, then Smuggler's Notch should be on your list of resorts to visit.

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