by Dawn Coe
Growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I spent most of my free time outside playing with the neighborhood kids. We played sports and games such as basketball, street hockey, “kick the can” and “washers”. Although I spent a great amount of time outdoors, very little of that time was spent engaged in nature. The urban setting offers few opportunities to truly experience nature.
After high school, I moved to Michigan. Living in Ann Arbor, I began to experience nature primarily through hikes and trips to the arboretum. I later settled down with my husband on Lake Michigan, taking advantage of the lake and hikes in the surrounding area. Eight years ago, my family moved to Knoxville. We immediately fell in love with the area and started going on family hikes shortly after my daughter’s birth; taking her on her first hike at only two weeks old. As a parent, I know the importance of physical activity for children. Therefore, my husband and I have always modeled a physically active lifestyle for our children. I love that our children have grown to love the outdoors and have a natural tendency towards being active.
As a pediatric exercise physiologist, I have always known the positive benefits of children engaging in an active lifestyle. As my research has evolved during my time at the University of Tennessee, my research line has veered towards the measurement of outdoor activity and activity behaviors in children. Through this research, I have found that activity in nature provides a host of additional benefits to children than what is seen with physical activity alone. Outdoor play encourages risk taking, providing opportunities for children to become more aware of their bodies as well as engage in vigorous activity. Play in nature also provides a variety of sensory experiences (i.e. motor, visual, tactile) and the opportunity for active, imaginative play. These types of experiences not only benefit the child physically but also mentally. In general, young children (3–5 years old) should accumulate approximately 180 minutes of activity per day, while school-aged children (6-17 years) should accumulate at least 60 minutes of daily moderate (brisk walking) to vigorous (jogging) physical activity that is developmentally appropriate.
I feel the multitude of benefits of outdoor activity provide a strong impetus for me to continue encouraging my children to engage in outdoor play. While both of my children currently take part in athletic pursuits, they still enjoy our family time outdoor together. We try to periodically “unplug” and enjoy fun days in the Urban Wilderness or Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Resources detailing the importance of nature play in children can be found in Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and on the Children & Nature Network website (http://www.childrenandnature.org/).
Dawn Coe Contact
Dawn P. Coe, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sports Studies within the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Dawn is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. Dawn’s research focuses on physical activity assessment in youth, natural playground activity and behavior, and the impact of physical activity and physical fitness on academic success in children and adolescents. Dawn enjoys watching her children play sports and spending quality time outdoors with her family.