“The sky was our storybook,” Ray Rustem told me as I discussed the No Child Left Inside initiative he’s spearheading within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

When we were young, we played outside, created whole worlds during romps in the woods and nights under the stars. We breathed deeply and well. We maintained healthy body weights and hardly anyone had allergies like they do today.

There’s a reason our society has gotten so sick. We are stuck inside, breathing artificial air, afraid to explore and wander. I’m guilty of it myself – though I love the outdoors. I don’t want to let my kids run free unless I know they’ll be safe. I’m not alone in this notion; parents today know too much, so we fear far more than parents who came before us.

And our children are suffering because of it.

Yesterday, I filmed two episodes for my show, the CYF Spotlight, on Children, Youth & Families. In one episode, I interviewed Ray and Bryan Farmer from Farmington Hills Special Services

Did you know that outdoor play and exploration are essential to our children’s physical and mental health? Studies show that children who play outside regularly are more creative, have improved attention spans and higher test scores, and are healthier overall?

In fact, only 6% of children today between the age of 9 and 13 play outside on their own in an average week. Children today spend half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago.

How did we get here? I for one have always taken my kids on local trails, encouraged them to hug trees (literally!) and reveled in the beauty of our natural landscape. When we go Up North, we sit by the lake, awed into meditative silence by the sheer majesty of what is so much bigger and more powerful than us.

But apparently, not enough families are getting outside anymore. I know it’s restorative for my mental and physical health to be outside, to be active, but some days just get away from me.

Or is that an excuse? Am I (are we?) blaming outside forces for our own decisions to be sedentary? And if it’s hurting our children in measurable ways (and hurting ourselves in the same ways), then why aren’t we doing something about it?

Indeed, the sky was a storybook for so many generations. Until the last 20 or so years, we focused our eyes outward, not down on tiny back-lit screens. 

We ran in the open fields, played in parks, made mud pies and houses out of blankets and chairs. We ran with our creativity and imagination and we were better for it, I am certain of that.

So that’s my promise to myself – to get outside more, to slow down and take a breath, to notice the tree and its up-reaching arms in the yard and the way the clouds pile in the sky like a mountain. To actually climb mountains, too, and not just in the metaphorical sense.

We’ve got one life. Better make it worth something.

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