Think back to your childhood. How did you spend your summers, weekends and afternoons when school was out? Chances are that if you were born before 1980, you were outside riding bikes with friends, flying kites or just exploring the world around you. Now think about the children you know. How do they spend their free time? Some may have childhoods that resemble yours, but more likely they spend most of their time inside playing video games, watching television or texting friends. What little time children do spend outside is used for sports or band practice, leaving very little time for the free exploration and independent play that is integral to a healthy childhood. Over the last several decades, society as a whole has moved farther and farther away from nature. This is most troubling in young people because the effects of this change are greater than many imagine.

Studies have shown that time spent in nature has a host of beneficial effects including reduction of ADHD and autism symptoms, greater cognitive function, reduced incidence of obesity and better emotional health. When playing in nature, very young children learn cause and effect and practice gross and fine motor skills in ways that indoor environments rarely afford. On the other hand, children who spend less time outside are more likely to feel higher levels of stress and a disconnection from their community and the world around them. After observing the problems facing children who experience too little nature, Richard Louv coined the term "nature deficit disorder" in his book "Last Child in the Woods."

The good news is that it is never too late to make a change. Southwest Kansas is filled with wonderful opportunities to get outside and explore nature. Last weekend, my family and I visited Pumpkin Paradise near Sublette. In addition to finding the perfect pumpkin, we discovered that insects live under pumpkins, corn can grow taller than a person and the wind blows harder when there aren't buildings around. Last month we went to Scott Lake, where we learned that fish are slimy and lake water is cold. In the spring, we may visit the Cheyenne Bottoms near Great Bend to watch the birds migrate and discover a new world of excitement. If you prefer to stay closer to home, you can look for tracks at the river bed, play in the leaves at the park, let the kids play in the back yard while you get some chores done or, of course, visit Lee Richardson Zoo. All of these are valuable nature experiences that will not only improve your family's physical and mental health, but also will create memories that last a lifetime.

If you would like to know more about ways you can experience nature with your family or are interested in the research that has been done on this topic, visit the Children and Nature Network at www.childrenandnature.org or the Kansans for Children in Nature website at www.kansasgreenschools.org/kansans-children-nature. And, as always, stop by the zoo to experience nature and to learn about the new and exciting things that are happening every day.