Great Migrations: Move or Die

Tonight’s National Geographic Special, Great Migrations, will show some gorgeous images of zebras, jellyfish, butterflies, elephants, and baby crabs on the move.

“They were born to move,” intones the narrator.  “They move to live. They move to survive. They move… or they die.”


My only problem is with the word “they.” Who does he think WE are? Did the folks at National Geo not recognize that movement is essential for homo sapiens as well?

Here’s the truth: We move to live. We move to survive. We were born to move. We move… or we die.

Exercise is not optional for us — any more than it’s optional for the African elephants, who trek across the arid plains in search of water and food. We cannot live – not well, and not long — without making our own daily (or near-daily) migrations – on foot, on bicycles, in the water, in wheelchairs or rowing shells. We have many options. The only non-negotiable part is this: We must move.

The animals on TV tonight will provide a good reminder. Personally, I couldn’t watch the previews without going out for a one-hour walk, at dusk, on this gorgeous fall evening. When I returned I felt alive, relaxed, nourished.

That was the extent of my “great migration”: a one-hour loop around the ‘hood.’ It was enough, though: just putting one foot in front of the other.

Because we are animals. And we are born to move.

(That’s Willow, my niece, running downhill, bringing flowers to her father. Simple pleasures!)

No Child Left Inside

Willow Mariah Nelson, my five-year-old goddaughter and niece, proudly showed me recently how she can swing across the entire horizonal ladder at a local playground. During my recent visit to her Belair, California home, we also jumped on her trampoline and hiked up the hill behind her home, discovering numerous fascinating little bugs along the way. Last year, her father and I took her camping. When we gather at the New Jersey shore, we spend evenings catching (and releasing) toads.

All of these outdoor activities engage and delight Willow – thank goodness.

Fewer and fewer kids enjoy exploring their natural environment or even playing outdoors, according to an article in today’s Washington Post called “Getting Lost in the Great Outdoors.”

Studies that measure children’s time outdoors omit organized sports from the accounting – perhaps because what psychologists believe children need is not just fresh air but free play. Time to explore. Freedom to make up their own games. Permission to wander, and to wonder.

As adults, it’s easy to romanticize our own childhoods, and bemoan the fact that kids these days don’t do what we did. But as I’ve watched not only Willow but numerous other nieces, nephews, and young friends grow up over the years, this trend toward indoor-only play seems obvious – and ominous.

My brother and I used to spend summer evenings playing kick the can, “tree seek,” baseball, tetherball, and football in our yards, or neighbors’ yards. We rode bikes around the neighborhood, explored the woods near our house, built dams across the creek, caught lightning bugs in jars, and hung upside down from the swingset, pretending we were bats. Perhaps it’s because of these happy memories that he now takes Willow and her brother Tanner outdoors every chance he gets.

Yet even in the six-year span from 1997 to 2003, there was a fifty percent decline in the proportion of 9-to-12-year-olds who spent time hiking, fishing, gardening, or playing at th beach, according to one study at the University of Maryland.

In Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv contends that children who stay indoors suffer from “nature deficit disorder,” missing out on “the spiritual, emotional, and psychological benefits of exposure to the wonders of nature, including reduced stress and improved cognitive development, creativity, and cooperative play.”

I want such benefits – and simple enjoyment – for the children in my life. Don’t you?

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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