Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Put children on a better path
BY MICHAEL ZITZ
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
MOMS AND DADS no longer tell children to run outside and play each morning—shouting “Be home by dinner time” as the screen door slams behind them.
That’s a sad fact of life.
Structured, supervised activities such as Little League are great. But they don’t fill more than six hours or so a week. Then the kids are back in the house playing video games, eating Cheetos and sipping Coke.
Even if children pass their time reading the classics rather than splattering the enemy while playing Call of Duty, they’re likely to gain weight this summer.
Childhood obesity has become epidemic in America. It’s particularly insidious because it leads to early onset diabetes and other serious health problems.
Much of it has to do with the fact that whether children are reading, watching TV or playing video games, they’re burning few calories. Instead, they’re adding them at an alarming rate by snacking out of boredom.
The best possible solution is to get back to telling kids to run outside and play. But how? It cannot and should not mean eight hours a day of supervised baseball games and soccer clinics.
And some children dread athletics and are incapable of performing at a non-embarrassing level, no matter how hard they try. Our 11-year-old son is one of those kids. Even if we were back in the more innocent ’50s or ’60s, he could not pass summer days playing pickup sandlot baseball as I did. So his games are played on digital virtual fields, not ones of grass and sand.
Our 8-year-old son is athletic, but again, there are just so many hours of Little League. And there are just so many throws left in my aging, aching arm when we head to the field across the street from our home.
Recently, I rolled the dice and tried something I believed had little chance of getting the kids enthused.
My wife and I took both boys on a Spotsylvania Greenways Initiative Master Naturalist tour of the Salamander Loop, part of the Ni River Trail behind the Spotsylvania Schools Administration Building off U.S. 1 in Massaponax. SGI is a volunteer group working to create and link hiking, biking and jogging trails around the Fredericksburg area.
I expected our 11-year-old to become bored and tired and begin asking to go home within 20 minutes. Then something unexpected and wonderful happened. Three hours passed. And he didn’t want to leave the woods.
Thank God for SGI, for its master naturalists like Harry Puffenberger, and for caterpillar poop.
Did you know there are so many caterpillars in the woods in the spring, one of the master naturalists told the children on the tour, that if you listen, it sounds like rain falling from the trees and plants?
The master naturalists made the children laugh. And the caterpillars, salamanders, inchworms, turtles, plants and a red fox who lives on Salamander Loop had them wide-eyed with wonder.
I had thought the kids would be too jaded by video games to be interested. I’ve never been so glad to be proven wrong.
These are rare activities that people ranging in age from 3 to 75 can share that don’t involve sitting and eating in front of a TV or movie screen.
Children learn about nature and come to appreciate it more. The fact that this is engaging makes it more likely that families will go on hikes or bike together on their own without a guide. That’s the important part.
Introducing children to trail activities may cause them to be more inclined to be interested in other activities that don’t involve Xboxes or PSPs. It can be a step toward teaching them to incorporate physical activity into their lifestyles without it seeming like punishment or requiring a league and coaches and set times.
It also has health benefits for Mom, Dad, Grandpa and Grandma, and it’s a good way for generations to bond.
And it forces adults like me to relax and turn off our smartphones (lest we walk into a tree or lose Junior).
Learn more about what SGI is doing at a special event on Saturday morning.
Just watch out for the caterpillar poop.
Michael Zitz: 540/846-5163
WANT TO GO?
The grand opening of the latest portion of the Ni River Trail is Saturday, June 16, behind River Run Business Park off U.S 1 in Massaponax. It’s a free family event with “Sneak Peek” trail tours at 9 a.m., and a ribbon cutting at 10 a.m. Activities, including “critter displays” and a snake exhibit at 1 p.m. Tours will be led by master naturalists every 20 minutes. Free. No registration