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Why getting fresh air is a must

Beruklyn Zywicki-Zeru swings at the Field of Fun playground at Soldiers Memorial Field in Rochester.

A popular blog post made the rounds this spring on how the expectations placed upon parents have intensified through the years.

It also touched on the way children no longer get as much fresh air as they once did.

Its title said it all:

"What Would my Mom Do? (Drink Tab and Lock Us Outside.)"

In the column, a blogger out of Austin, Texas, named Jen Hatmaker described how her 1970s-era mother lacked the modern arsenal of indoor entertainments and scheduled activities that compete with green space for the attention of today's children.


As a result, she writes, her mother "did what all moms did: told us to play. The end. She said get the hell outside, and we did. We made up games and rode our bikes and choreographed dance routines and drank out of the hose when we got thirsty. ... We were like a roving pack of wolves, and all the moms took turns feeding and watering us."

Many of us can recall a similar experience of regular fresh air during childhood. For a time my 1970s-era parents actually mounted a brass bell on the door frame of our house, a clanger to call their brood home for dinner -- like cattle on the range.

Sun, air

Hatmaker's point was that mothers and fathers are too hard on themselves for not acting as the MC of their children's free time, but the post raised a health problem as well, which is the modern-day loss of sunlight and fresh air.

Sunlight and fresh air were once considered so important to physical health that in 1922 a mother patented cages that could be mounted in the windows of London apartment buildings, allowing toddlers to soak up sunshine and fresh air while hanging 10 stories above the ground.

Today, getting outside is narrowly targeted as a form of recreation. In a return to the prescription of years past, fresh air increasingly is viewed as a practice to help prevent and treat illness and disease.

"Part of what's happened is our indoor environments have become more comfortable and engaging over the last several decades," said Dr. Pooja Tandon, a pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Washington. "One of my mentors always says he tries to keep his home really boring, so kids are excited to do the things they can do outside."

Put to the test


Tandon recently coauthored a study published in the journal Pediatrics, which measured and characterized the active play opportunities offered to nearly 100 preschool children over a range of seasons and weather conditions at 10 Seattle-area licensed daycare centers.

After strapping accelerometers on their hips and tabulating direct observations on the nature of their activity, she determined children in these settings spent 73 percent of their time being sedentary, and had 33 minutes of active outdoor play a day, or just 8 percent of their day.

At 48 minutes of active play a day in total, the centers fell far short of the two-hour mix of free play and adult-led free play that is recommended. And these are children in licensed day care centers protected by fences, surrounded by playmates and with adult monitors seemingly invested in tiring them out. It seems likely that children stationed at home with busy parents receive even less fresh air and green space.

"It was concerning because we are not setting children up for success if we are not giving them the opportunity to be active," Tandon said. "My personal belief is that children should get daily opportunities for outdoor play."

Range of benefits

"There is research that when children are outdoors they are actually twice as active," she said. "If someone was just looking at physical activity ... getting them outdoors is probably the easiest and most consistent way of doing that, but there are a whole range of other benefits.

"There's a body of research around the benefits of nature for children. The development of gross motor skills is enhanced by being in terrain that's less predictable. There's also evidence in older children and adults that being outdoors is more beneficial to mental health and has restorative properties."

That research , a collection of papers produced by the Landscape and Human Health laboratory at the University of Illinois, finds that for children with ADHD, compared to time spent indoors, time in green space reduces their symptoms. The authors speculate that children experience "attention fatigue" during long stays indoors, and this exacerbates ADHD. The green advantage could not be attributed to "burning off" excess energy, they found.


"There's even some literature out of Japan that children who spend more time outdoors have better vision," Tandon said.

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