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Play in the Dirt for a Clean Bill of Health
Teaching Kids to Hit the Dirt Instead of the Couch Helps Relieve Stress, Release Energy and Embrace an Active Life

By Rhonda L. Clements, Ed.D.

The school year is in full swing - kids are back to routines and parents are once again homework-helpers. One important item that may be overlooked in the school shuffle is the need for outdoor playtime. Let your kids get out there and get dirty. Remember, you can take care of the stains, but you can't replace the beneficial aspects of exploring and creating in the outdoors through a video game. Parents can encourage a more active and fulfilled lifestyle by helping their children-especially during the formative years-to choose hitting the dirt over hitting the couch. Parents will see their children's physical, creative and social skills sharpen while their children get to savor the childhood joy of free play and getting dirty.

Indoor Inertia
Since the 1970's, children have lost 12 hours each week in playtime, including a record 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities. Deepening the problem, up to 40 percent of school districts have cut or are considering cutting recess. Even during the lunch hour, when children are expected to get a break from sitting still and focusing on academics, many schools lack adequate equipment or space for play. The consequences of prolonged confinement inside include increased fidgeting, restlessness and the inability to concentrate. By the time kids head home at the end of the school day, their only outdoor activity may have been waiting at the bus stop.

There are resources out there to help teach parents how to stop this problem and to provide more appropriate places to play. For example, the "America Needs Dirt" program, which is endorsed by baseball great Cal Ripken Jr. and Wisk Laundry Detergent, wants kids to embrace the outdoors and relish getting dirty. The program's website (www.AmericaNeedsDirt.com) serves as a resource for parents and caregivers to learn about the benefits of outdoor play, getting dirty and information and ideas on how to increase and improve outdoor activity opportunities in the backyard and on local ball fields across America.

Active outdoor play has been found to relieve stress, increase creativity and improve motor skills. Children love getting dirty and appreciate the freedom to do so. Interacting with nature also empowers children, sparks imagination as there are fewer limitations outside, allows for social interaction with children of varying ages and uniquely challenges their fine motor and large muscle physical abilities.

The possibilities for having fun and learning with dirt are endless and free-and many of them can be found in your own backyard or in your local park:

Outdoor Activity Ideas
Play Free
Tip: Let your children loose in the dirt to explore and not feel guilty about getting dirty.
Children need to be told that it is "OK" to go outside and be messy. Give them the freedom to stomp in a puddle, make mud pies or kick around a soccer ball. Tell them about the games that you played as a child and help your child develop new ones.
Benefit: Stimulates creative thinking, relieves stress and builds an appreciation of nature.

Nature's Toys
Tip: Dirt makes terrific play material.
Dirt has a magical quality with children and is in ample supply. Mud, sand, soil, clay, twigs and small stones make great playthings. Just watch your kids smile as they slide their hands into the mud to create pathways for miniature cars or boats, build castles or fortresses out of sticks or collect and sort different types of nuts and acorns. If building sandcastles at the beach was one of their favorite activities this summer, encourage them to build a dirt castle in the backyard with water, dirt, sand, rocks and fallen leaves.
Benefit: Stimulates imagination and problem solving.

Props for Play
Tip: Seek and provide age-appropriate outdoor play items for your child.
Offering children play objects that correspond with their interests and abilities will provide an appropriate challenge and extend the play session. Plastic shovels, pails and rakes are all lightweight, easily cleaned and afford multiple opportunities for engaging play. Brightly colored plastic balls can be rolled, tossed, kicked, bounced, batted and used in child-created games. From a simple sandbox with dinosaurs and fossils placed in it for little ones to discover, to neighborhood sports games for older children, the key is introducing challenge to banish boredom.
Benefit: Engages the child's attention and promotes physical activity.

Outdoor Story Time
Tip: Read stories together outside.
Take children's books to the local park and read the stories together under a favorite tree or in a solitary area. Select books with story lines set outdoors, so your child can either verbally discuss the setting in the story plot, point to items outside that are written about in the book or act out action words in the story using natural props. This challenge enhances their understanding of specific vocabulary words and helps them be expressive.
Benefit: Instills appreciation for literature and nature. Helps develop cognitive skills as they connect the story to real life settings.

The America Needs Dirt Program
"America Needs Dirt" is taking action to transition parents and kids from indoor inertia to outside activity. Baseball great and parent of two, Cal Ripken, Jr., is lending his voice to the program and Wisk Laundry Detergent is providing support to spread the word, create programming and promote the cause. A special website has been developed with expert advice on how parents can get their children playing more outside along with ideas on games for kids and the corresponding health benefits and information on how to win a local dream field: www.AmericaNeedsDirt.com.

Dr. Rhonda Clements is the President, The American Association for the Child's Right to Play (IPA/USA) and a professor in the School of Education and Allied Human Services at Hofstra University. She can be reached at HPRRLC@hofstra.edu.

Dr. Clements has authored six and edited two books in the areas of movement, play, and games, and has written more than 20 research articles concerning the need for physical activity for preschool and elementary school age children. This year, Dr. Clements was one of eight national experts invited to contribute to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education's (NASPE) early childhood physical activity guidelines, entitled "Active Start: A Statement of Guidelines for Children From Birth to Five Years."

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