The Fresh-Air Fix

Sure, people say they love summer. But instead of enjoying it, the average American spends most of the season stuck in stale offices and living rooms. Even kids today spend 7 hours more on academics and 2 hours less on sports and outdoor activities per week than they did 20 years ago. Annual family vacations have decreased by 28%, while national park attendance has fallen steadily.

But all this indoor living isn’t doing much for our health. Children who get more “vitamin G”–what experts call time spent in green spaces–have lower stress levels, more success in school, and fewer ADHD symptoms. And simply being in sunlight triggers skin to make vitamin D, which is shaping up to be a potent cancer fighter.

“We may also exercise and socialize more in nature–activities with proven health benefits,” says Frances Kuo, PhD, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Even in the bleakest Chicago housing projects, the addition of just a few trees cut crime by 42% in one study, encouraging people to venture out.

So get moving: Here are six ways your family can capture the benefits of an I-love-summer lifestyle.

Make Outdoor Play Mandatory
The National Wildlife Federation urges parents to institute an outdoor “green hour” for kids. Start by suggesting just one more activity each weekend–a family bike ride or an after-dinner walk. Next, add a weekday event. Some other ideas (find more at

Invest in fun boots and let kids splash in puddles.

Pack a picnic snack and dine in a shady spot.

Look for constellations or catch fireflies at night.

Grow a Love of Gardening
Besides getting fresh air and exercise, kids who garden eat more vegetables, research shows. Plus, a study of 647 grade-schoolers found that students who grew plants scored about 12% higher on academic tests, compared with those who didn’t. To make it fun for everyone, choose easy, hardy crops, like squash, tomatoes, and radishes. Visit for more advice on getting started.

Bring the Animals Closer
Add parsley and bright flowers to your garden to attract caterpillars and butterflies you can watch all season. To lure wildlife straight to your window, help kids make a bird feeder out of wood (kits available at home-improvement stores) or a milk carton (see how at Keep binoculars handy–birdwatching is one of the country’s fastest-growing hobbies.

Move the Kitchen Outside
Get the whole family outdoors by doing more of what you already do–cooking (and eating!). Fire up the grill and make fun creations such as fruit kebabs, or let kids personalize meat by brushing on sauces before cooking. Make your dining area more inviting on cool evenings with a fire pit or patio heater.

Sleep Under the Stars
Backwoods camping isn’t for everyone: too many bugs, too few showers. But even a family “sleep out” in the yard counts as communing with nature; pitch a tent and switch on a portable radio or open a board game. Getting kids excited about camping early on may encourage them, as teens, to pursue wilderness programs such as Outward Bound or the Student Conservation Association; these programs enhance self-confidence, motivation, and independence, according to Yale University research.

Pave a New Path
You’ll get greater health benefits exercising where it’s green–even if it’s only once a week. A 2003 Swedish study found that people who ran in parks felt 15% more restored than those who ran on treadmills or through city streets. And hiking or biking with the kids can be a great break from mundane weekday workouts and inspires family-wide fitness.  Interaction with nature reduces depression, promotes healing, sparks creativity, and even increases life expectancy–upping survival odds by about 15% over 5 years in one Japanese study.

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