Scott Graves

Pilot staff writer

This is a bittersweet summer for me.

The next three months will likely be the last in my daughter's earthly experience in which she will lead a relatively unstructured life. She begins kindergarten in the fall.

From then on out, Alia's daily life will be dictated, to a large degree, by her school schedule. Kindergarten is a six hours a day, five days a week affair - one that will continue and increase in hours through 12th grade, and beyond if she chooses to pursue college and a career.

My wife and I plan to help Alia make the most of the next three months. That means providing her with plenty of opportunities for unstructured outdoor play - particularly nature-based activities such as turning over rocks to see what's underneath, using a net to catch critters in the river and chasing butterflies across the backyard.

I've written before about my philosophy on the importance of unstructured free play - for children and adults. My wife feels similarly. We're not alone. The American Medical Association recently called for a return to such play and credits this activity with improved self-discipline, cooperation, flexibility, self-awareness, and reduced aggression and increased happiness.

Many advocates of unstructured free play and exposure to the natural world worry that such experiences are disappearing from kids' lives - and are all but non-existent in adults' lives.

I have talked with parents whose children's daily schedules are filled from sunup to bedtime with activities that include school, sports and other extracurricular activities, social organizations, music lessons and so on. Between those commitments, kids are likely playing video games, watching television, going online or cell phone texting.

Last weekend I spotted a family of four - two parents and two teenagers - vacationing in Brookings. They sat at a park bench at Sporthaven Beach at the Port of Brookings Harbor. It was a glorious evening. The sunset was setting up for a spectacular show, a whale was showing off just offshore and low tide had left a wide swath of beach just begging to be explored. The family didn't notice any of it - the teenage girl was talking on the cell phone, her brother was playing a handheld video game, and their parents had their noses buried in brochures.

Why did they bother coming here?

A story in the Bend Bulletin reported that visits to national and state parks have dropped steadily since the 1980s. Camping, hunting and fishing rates have also decreased sharply in recent years. One expert likened the lack of interest in nature as a andquot;nature deficit disorder.andquot;

Still, looking around this wonderful place I call home, I see plenty of opportunities for people to buck the trend.

Our area is teeming with outdoor opportunities to hike, swim, raft or simply lay on the beach or beside a river and do nothing. To learn more of such opportunities, check the Pilot's annual Summer Vacation Guide, published in the May 24 issue and available around town. Additional activities will be highlighted in upcoming issues of the Pilot.

Come fall, you can bet Alia's parents will do everything in their power to ensure there is room in her schedule for good old free time outside. Getting one's hands dirty and feet wet can be as educational - more so - as any lessons taught in the classroom.