Before kids come out to a program at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ wildlife learning center, Jan Weems asks them to draw a picture of what they think they’ll see.

“They draw pictures of bears and lions and all these really big animals,” says Weems, the center’s senior manager of early childhood programs. At the end of the program, when she asks them to draw a picture of what they actually did see at this 45-acre natural oasis in the heart of Raleigh, she gets sketches of tadpoles, frogs, crickets, ladybugs … .

“The reality is it’s really much more fun to get close to a lady bug,” says Weems, who has been in the business of exposing kids to the outdoors for 30 years.

The reality is also that today more than ever, too many kids like the ones viewing Prairie Ridge as a wild jungle have only a vague notion of what’s going on outside their living room windows.

That’s why in 2006, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Director of Education Liz Baird deemed it necessary to create Take A Child Outside Week, seven days at the end of September dedicated to introducing our increasingly insulated youth to the great outdoors. Take A Child Outside Week 2013 begins Tuesday and runs through Monday, Sept. 30. At least 82 Take A Child Outside-related programs are scheduled throughout the state. (To find an event close to you, check our calendar, here.)

“The average child spends seven hours a day in front of a screen,” says Baird, “with no logged time outdoors. Obviously, we still need to remind parents to get their children outside.”

Take a Child Outside Week was spurred by Richard Louv’s 2005 bestseller, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” an account of how, in less than a generation, our kids have gone from being weaned in the wild to garrisoned in the great room.

To anyone who came of age pre-1980, the notion of having to be reminded to go outside and play would have seemed crazy; outside — in a local forest, along a nearby creek, in a neighborhood park — was where kids went to escape. But as Louv notes, a proliferation of electronic options and increasingly protective parents have conspired to keep our kids inside.

Some disturbing numbers:

  • According to at least three studies conducted between 2001 and 2005, children spent half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years earlier. A 2012 study by the Outdoor Foundation found that the trend has continued, with youth participation since 2006 dropping across the board, with the greatest decline among 6- to 12-year-old girls.
  • A Kaiser Foundation Family study found that kids 8 to 18 years old devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to “entertainment media” in a typical day.
  • In a typical week, according to a 2008 Children & Nature Network report, only 6 percent of children ages 9-13 play outside on their own.

Time outside is important, because:

  • At least two studies, in 2005 and in 2007, found that children who play outside are more physically active, more creative in their play, less aggressive and show better concentration.
  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 60 minutes of daily unstructured free play is essential to children’s physical and mental health. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2008)
  • Kids exposed to the outdoors via “wild nature activities” before the age of 11 grow to be adults more concerned about the environment.

Weems has borne witness to the trend of children separating from the natural world during her 30 years on the job

“There’s a growing gap between child and parent,” she says. “I think sometimes parents forget the joys of just being outside. Slowly, we have to let them explore their world.”

Weems and Prairie Ridge hope to narrow that gap with their new Nature Playspace, which will be unveiled Saturday, Sept. 28.

Nature Playspace is a one-acre playground with a “water feature, a groundhog tunnel big enough for me to crawl through, stumps to balance on and logs to pick up and look under.”

“In a world of ‘don’t touch,’ we want to send a message of please touch,” says Weems. “Please look underneath that rock, you are welcome to move that log.”

The area is designed as a safe place for kids to observe the wild, says Weems. “We’ve removed some of the barriers that parents often are concerned with. We’ve removed the poison ivy, the pokeberry. It’s a little less intimidating.”

That said, Weems acknowledges that one of the benefits of exploring the true wild is that it teaches kids to evaluate risk, to be aware that everything may not be safe and that you need to make those determinations on your own. The Nature Playspace is a first step in letting parents give their kids some space in the outdoors.)

Many of the Take A Child Outside Week events scheduled statewide are likewise geared toward letting parent and child explored together. At Shelley Lake in Raleigh on Tuesday, for instance, there’s a “Family Sunset Walk” intended to expose the natural world after dark. “Festival in Motion” on Saturday at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Wetland Center includes a range of kid-friendly activities geared toward exposing families to a wetlands. And Saturday’s “Talking Turkey” program lets kids explore the unfamiliar outdoor world through the more familiar world of crafts.

TACO founder Baird says the opportunities to take a child outside over the next week offer an opportunity that no kid should miss out on.

“We need to let kids take advantage of childhood while it lasts,” she says. “Childhood is not something to be rushed through.

“Explore. Play. Be outside.”

*  * *

Find an event

Looking for a scheduled outdoor program you and your kid can enjoy during Take A Child Outside Week? Check out our list of 82 events, broken down by the following areas: Charlotte, Greenville-Wilmington, Triad, Triangle. ((LINK TO APPROPRIATE CALENDARS))

Make your own event

The Take A Child Outside folks offer tips on making your own outdoor adventure. Click on the link for direction.

Getting Started: Simple activities for all ages and seasons

Animal Signs and Observations: Activities that encourage discovering animal signs and making observations

Trees and Other Plants: Activities that facilitate the exploration of woods and fields

After the Sun Goes Down: Activities that involve discovering the night world


Find out more about the importance of kids being in the outdoors through these resources:

The Children & Nature Network “Building a Movement to Reconnect Children and Nature” is the mission of this site, established to collect and distribute information between researchers and individuals, educators and organizations dedicated to children’s health and well-being. “C&NN also promotes fundamental institutional change and provides resources for sharing information, strategic initiatives and success stories.” Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” which sparked the get-kids-back-outside-where-they-need-to-be is chairman and co-founder.

US Play Coalition A unit of Clemson University’s College of Health, Education and Human Development, the coalition is made up of anyone — from parks and rec directors to health officials to concerned individuals — interested in getting kids up and playing. Their focus isn’t entirely outdoors, but their very mission calls for a goodly amount of outdoor play.

Nature Grounds The focus of this non-profit is to make nature a more integral part of playgrounds. Encourages playgrounds less reliant on standard playground equipment and more focused on natural elements that let kids create their own adventures, as is the case with The Nature Explorer Zone at Reedy Creek Nature Center in Charlotte.

Green Hearts: Institute for Nature in Childhood Another non-profit founded to get kids back outside. Founded by Ken Finch, a former vice president of the National Audubon Society.

Richard Louv’s Web site Richard Louv wrote the book on why kids need to play outdoors; it’s called “Last Child in the Woods” and it makes a compelling case, even if you’re an avowed shut-in.