The children listen to a five-minute lesson on casting. Then, they’re handed a fishing pole and set loose along the riverbank.
For many, it’s their first time fishing and dipping a hand into the Mississippi River at Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul.
Throughout the day, they’ll skip stones across the water, bird-watch and hike. A park ranger will explain that they’re playing in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a national park in the same league as Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon.
Time outside in nature is an age-old salve for many modern-day maladies, including anxiety, depression, lethargy and weight gain. But it’s happening less and less as screen time replaces playtime for all ages, experts said.
That’s why the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities has launched “Get Outdoors” — a year-round nature initiative that’s aimed at all demographics: kids, adults, seniors, city dwellers and suburbanites.
“We know nature is a prescription for health,” said Michel Tigan, Y Camp Icaghowan executive director in Amery, Wis. “There is a need to literally breath fresh air and see the sun.”
The Y is making sure that fresh-air opportunities are plentiful across the region. In Minneapolis, hourlong workout classes are held outside in the heart of downtown, including on the new rooftop at the Dayton YMCA.
In St. Paul, the Y and the city of St. Paul hosted for the second summer mobile day camps for hundreds of city kids at Hidden Hills and Lake Phalen.
In addition, the Y is expanding and highlighting their family camp offerings to get kids and parents paddling, swimming and playing together. They’ve opened up their scenic overnight camps to Y members for day hikes throughout the year.
The YMCA also acquired CycleHealth in 2017, which offers seasonal fitness challenges, motivational programs and adventure races for kids, and encourages pediatricians to write “Sweat Rx” prescriptions to inspire kids to get active. More than 700 kids will participate in CycleHealth’s BreakAway Kids Triathlon Aug. 18 at Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove.
The Y’s CEO Glen Gunderson said he and other staffers read the book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder,” and it inspired them to do even more to get people outdoors. Author Richard Louv ties together studies that find time in nature is critical for a child’s physical and emotional development.
“Having access to nature and providing meaningful outdoor experiences away from TV and computer screens decreases stress, improves overall health and helps youth build confidence and make new friends,” Gunderson said.
A slew of studies support the benefits of outdoor time and its decline among today’s youth, who are spending more time in front of screens. A recent study out of the United Kingdom found that children spend four hours a week playing outside, which is half the time their parents did. Another study pointed out that prison inmates often spend more time outdoors than American children.
Health expert and researcher Leyla McCurdy ticks off a list of diseases often associated with aging, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity and cardiovascular disease, that are on the rise in children due to more sedentary, indoor lifestyles.
“Kids are losing contact with the natural environment and missing key opportunities for physical activity, stress reduction, attention restoration and healthy development,” said McCurdy, during a podcast for the National Institute for Health.
The best way to heal this epidemic is time in nature, said McCurdy, who co-founded the Building Healthy Communities Committee at the American Public Health Association.
Unplug and relax
A growing number of parents are getting the message. Camp Icaghowan, which holds overnight family camp every Memorial Day weekend, is seeing interest climb as some parents become more intentional about planning outdoor time. The Y also has started hosting family days at its day camps to offer a more abbreviated nature experience.
At Camp Icaghowan — located on a 44-acre island in Lake Wapogasset — kids and parents hike, kayak and swim. They take part in organized games, crafts and campfire singalongs but nothing is required — and that’s the point.
Each family is assigned their own cabin in the woods. The calls of songbirds, the drumming of woodpeckers and the lapping of the water on the shoreline make up the soundtrack of camp.
Families are encouraged to set aside the smartphones, look up and enjoy the canopy of trees and the sun setting over the lake.
A whitetail deer and her newborn fawn are spotted trotting along the shoreline. Campers are encouraged to explore two treehouses on the island and can even sign up to stay overnight there.
Kids spend time with camp counselors, who introduce them to target sports and paddleboarding.
“We are reteaching this generation of helicopter parents its OK to foster independence,” Tigan said. “From that independence, children learn resilience.”
Dave Weiman first attended Camp Icaghowan in 1960 at age 9.
“I did not have a father that was able to do a lot of recreational things with me. The YMCA filled a very important gap there for me,” he said.
He was a regular every summer and later joined the staff. He took his wife, Peggy, and their children to family camp. This year, Weiman brought his 9-year-old grandson and the boy’s parents to family camp for the first time. Weiman said the time in nature is more important than ever for this new generation.
“Everyone is on their iPhones. We need to get kids out more for sports and recreation and social contact — interaction with others in groups settings,” he said.
The Weiman clan kayaked, tried their hand at watercolor painting and tie-dyeing. The highlight was when Weiman’s grandson reeled in a few fish from the shore.
Seeing nature anew
Back at Hidden Falls, National Park Service rangers Karen Katz and Abby Olson lead the children on a hike to the Falls that gave the parks its name. Each child is handed binoculars to use during the hike.
“Binoculars are awesome for seeing things far away, especially birds and butterflies,” Katz said.
Five minutes down the path, the group stops to focus in on a redstart. It’s a common Minnesota songbird but it’s thrilling to see it up close.
“This is an opportunity to give them a little independence — expose them, let them play and experiment and ask for help when the need it,” said Michelle Kelly, education specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, as she helped children fish at Hidden Falls.
Best of all, as one Y staffer pointed out, “They don’t realize they haven’t touched a screen all day.”