In today’s fast-paced and connected world, our children sadly spend most of their time indoors, parked in front of the television or a computer rather than playing outside. Recent studies have noted that children spend more than 44 hours per week on plugged-in activities and that kids can identify up to 1,000 corporate logos, but fewer than 10 plants or animals native to their backyards.
In 2009, the Chicago Wilderness Alliance enacted the first-ever Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, urging parents to step outdoors with their children and provide them with the opportunity to enjoy 10 outdoor experiences in danger of extinction. Research and anecdotal evidence proves that playing outdoors reduces stress, improves concentration and promotes creative thinking.
Luckily we live in Chicago, where even our city motto, Urbs in Horto, Latin for ‘City in a Garden’, reminds us that you don’t have to live in the country to enjoy fresh air and sunshine. Make it your goal this spring and summer to take advantage of the beautiful weather and help your children check off each activity on the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights.
- Discover wilderness. We’re surrounded by prairies but don’t forget to introduce your kids to area dunes, forests, savannas and wetlands. The Indiana Dunes are just a hop, skip and a fun slide down the sand away. The West DuPage Woods is a mix of woodland, wetland and prairie, providing diverse habitats for plants and animals and the perfect setting for a weekend hike.
- Camp under the stars. For kids, a vacation that involves getting dirty, swimming, canoeing, building a fire to roast hot dogs and s’mores, watching your mom attempt to reel in a fish, telling ghost stories in the dark and then zipping up a tent with your family is none other than heaven. Try the Illinois Department of National Resources’listing of State Park campgrounds.
- Follow a trail. Formerly a railway path, the Illinois Prairie Path is a 62-mile multi-use limestone trail that runs through some of the most beautiful and accessible prairie lands in Cook, DuPage and Kane counties and one of the best trails for a family bike trek. Visit ipp.org for maps and more information.
- Fish, frogs, and insects. At dupageforest.com, you’ll find info on kid-friendly lakes for catch and release fishing in nearby DuPage County. Pickerel Lake, for example, at Pratt’s Wayne Woods Forest Preserve in Wayne, will be stocked with about 1,080 fish this year. Grove Lake at Wood Dale Grove Forest Preserve in Wood Dale and Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville are also recommended for young anglers.
- Climb a tree. Take your child to discover the lost art of tree climbing today at your nearest park. Better yet, consider planting a tree in your own backyard. Arborday.org is a great resource for help with finding a suitable tree.
- Nature in neighborhoods. The Chicago Park District manages 7,600-plus acres of parkland, including 570 parks, 24 miles of lakefront, 11 savannas/woodlands, five wetlands and 22 prairies/grasslands. Despite living in the city, we don’t have to go far for nature. Familiarize yourself and your children with all that our city and its neighborhoods have to offer (chicagoparkdistrict.com).
- Celebrate heritage. Skip the movies and the mall and enjoy family time outdoors with a picnic, a hike or a backyard campout. Take a walk with grandma and grandpa or grab an ice cream cone and sit under a tree with your favorite cousin. Catch lightning bugs with your best friend or pick flowers for your favorite neighbor. Nature is the perfect backdrop for time spent with family and friends.
- Plant a flower. Better yet, plant an herb garden. Sprout some seeds in egg cartons filled with potting soil, then transfer to your backyard or a window box. Learn to cook some healthy dishes with your harvest.
- Play in the mud or a stream. Don’t let the rain keep you indoors. Throw on some play clothes, your raincoat and a pair of boots and head outdoors to splash in the puddles with your child.
- Learn to swim. Swimming is a necessary life skill, both for safety and enjoyment. The Chicago Park District offers free swimming instruction at all of its 26 indoor pools and 51 outdoor pools.