Lauren Showstead sends her boys outside nearly every day to play. In the summer, 5-year-old Justin and 3-year-old Brian collect bugs, pick up worms and explore nearby ponds and marshy areas. In the fall, they help rake the leaves, and in the winter, they're making snowmen and shooting down the luge track their dad made for them.
"Just the fresh air alone is so important for them. And it's great for their imagination. It's where they learn to be brothers and work together," Showstead says.
She and her husband are often outdoors with the kids, too, helping them build forts and learn about plants in the backyard of their Ridgefield, Conn., home.
The family might seem more like a throwback to an era before video games, the Internet and TV came to rule the recreation schedules of most families, but Showstead says they've just learned to balance high-tech toys and low-tech play time.
"There are times when they watch TV or use the PlayStation 2, but we just don't let it get out of hand," she says. "We're lucky, too, because our boys want to be outside. Not a lot of kids want to be outside anymore."
Doctors and teachers have been saying for years that children spend too much time indoors mesmerized by gadgets, or that parents are holding their children hostage inside for fear of kidnappers and other dangers.
Richard Louv argues in his new book that children are suffering from attention problems and higher rates of mental and physical illness because they aren't exposed to direct nature. In "Last Child in the Woods" (Algonquin Books), he calls the idea "nature-deficit disorder."
(He's quick to note, however, that he's not a medical doctor making an official diagnosis.)
"One boy I met said he wanted to play inside because that's where all the electrical outlets are," Louv says. "That seems to be how kids are thinking."
Louv, a journalist, has written several books on nature and parenting. He gathered anecdotal information to help back up his theory that nature helps children become more observant, calm and creative. In his book, he refers to recent studies that back up these ideas, though there are no long-term studies on how much time children spend in nature, or how it affects them.
"There's a real sense of wonder that is lost when kids aren't exposed to nature," says Louv during a recent telephone interview from his home in San Diego. "Nature doesn't have to be Yosemite. It can be the empty lot nearby or the backyard. Any place where they can learn about their surroundings."
Children badly need the exercise, too.
An estimated 16 percent of U.S. children are obese, and 9 million children ages 6 to 16 are overweight, according to federal health officials.
Overweight children usually grow into overweight adults, at increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, asthma and other disorders.
Organized sports are a help, but children need unstructured time to explore, Louv says. And the kids who do play on a team usually don't do it year-round. Other problems might be cultural pressures and the sheer number of gadgets are making it more difficult for children to just go outside.
Eve Edwards and her 9-year-old daughter, Sami, live in suburban Roslyn, N.Y., but Sami goes to sleepaway summer camp in Pennsylvania every summer for exposure to nonstop nature. "There are no distractions like TV. You have to be outside, you have to play. It's so old fashioned," says Edwards.
At home, though, it's easier for Sami and her friends to reach for their Game Boys for entertainment. "There's just more stuff now for kids to do inside," she says. "You have to spend your time convincing them to go outside, but all their friends are inside on the computer. It's rough."
Louv reports in his book that some suburbs make it illegal to have basketball hoops outside or to do chalk drawings on the sidewalk in the name of aesthetics. Other communities prohibit kids from playing in nearby ponds or fields.
Plus, parents feel their kids aren't safe outside, with Amber Alerts regularly making the national news and reports of scouts going missing in the woods.
"Our culture lives in fear. We feel it intensely," Louv says.
Time is another factor. Charlottesville, Va., pediatrician Martha Hellems says she sees patients in low-income households whose parents work long hours and don't have minutes, let alone hours, to chaperone the kids outside, and they can't afford to send the kids to camp.
But Louv encourages parents to consider the costs of keeping a child indoors all the time.
"I'm not suggesting we revert to the '50s when we let kids out to roam freely," he says. "We have to go outside with our kids and support programs that get our kids out there."
Leslie R. Walker, a pediatrician who runs an adolescent medicine clinic at Georgetown University, said she rarely sees patients who have unstructured outside play time.
"A lot of kids are living their lives on the Internet. I think the isolation that comes with sitting at a computer can hurt social skills, and if somebody's at risk for depression, that isolation can't be helpful," she says.
It was a very different experience growing up for Louv, who was raised near Kansas City, Mo. His home backed up to fields and woods. "I spent lots of hours with my collie in those woods. I had a sense of ownership over them," he recalls.
But he knew nothing about the Amazon rain forest. Today, he says, children know all about the rain forests but little or nothing about the ecosystem outside their door.
"Their relationship with nature is scholastic. Mine was in my heart, that's a big difference," he says.