Encourage kids to scratch that itch to be outdoors

When I was a boy, my mother worried about me. I wasn't a problem child. I just liked to run through the woods naked.

I wasn't a nudist or even an exhibitionist. I was Terry, King of the Apes.

Well, to be honest, we didn't have many primates in New Jersey, other than the knuckle draggers who hung out in front of the delicatessen down the street. But if we did, I knew the gorillas and chimps would have gladly followed me as I tried to swing from tree to tree.

I would not have needed video games or DVDs to keep me entertained. My playground was the woods behind my house. Every day after school, I'd come home, guzzle a glass of milk, then disappear into the bush.

As soon as I could no longer see the houses, I'd strip down to my Fruit of the Looms and take to the trees. I had asked my mom to make me a loincloth like the one my hero wore on television, but she refused, hence the tighty whities.

Nobody would have ever learned of my imaginary jungle realm had it not been for the fact that I often forgot where I left my clothes. I can still remember the scowl on my mother's face as I stood there on the front porch explaining, yet again, why I was wearing only my underwear.

I'm sure if she had taken me to a psychologist, he would have slapped some acronym on me — perhaps THT syndrome for "Thinks He's Tarzan."

But with nine children, my mother had no time for nonsense. So she would just throw me in the bathtub and make me promise to find my clothes the first chance I got.

Times, however, have changed. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the average child between the ages of 8 and 18 spends about 6.5 hours a day with some form of electronic media.

Parents, and I am guilty of this as well, often use TV or video games as "electronic babysitters." The author Richard Louv wrote about this phenomenon in his book Last Child in the Woods.

This growing disconnect between children and the outdoors has been referred to as "nature deficit disorder."

Many state governments are doing what they can to combat this problem. Connecticut has its "No Child Left Inside" program, and California has started the "Children's Outdoor Bill of Health." Now the FWC has formed the "Get Florida Outdoors" coalition.

I was lucky to have a father who valued the outdoors experience. He took me camping and fishing, although he did insist that I wear clothes most of the time.

Today, I have tried to instill that same value system in my son, although I must admit that the boy is also a serial tree climber.

I wanted to name him after my childhood hero, simply for alliteration, but my wife wouldn't have it.

Kai is almost 8, and unlike many children his age, he has no interest in video games. But he does have his vices: Animal Planet, Survivorman and covering himself in mud every chance he gets.

And sometimes, when he gets a whiff of live oak burning in a fireplace somewhere, he pulls me aside and begs with an impassioned plea, "Dad, if we don't go camping soon, I think I'll just go crazy."

So I do my best to keep him clothed, free of mud and close to trees. If you need help getting your child outside, go to www.get outdoorsflorida.com.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808.

Encourage kids to scratch that itch to be outdoors 03/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 3:30am]

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