“She had got up very early in the morning and had worked hard in the garden and she was tired and sleepy, so as soon as Martha had brought her supper and she had eaten it, she was glad to go to bed.
The skipping rope was a wonderful thing. She counted and skipped, and skipped and counted, until her cheeks were quite red, and she was more interested than she had ever been since she was born. The sun was shining and a little wind was blowing – not a rough wind, but one which came in delightful little gusts, and brought a fresh scent of newly turned earth with it. .
. . .Fresh air, and digging, and skipping-rope had made her feel so comfortably tired that she fell asleep.” – The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Young children, and many older children and adults if they have time to think about it, yearn to spend more time outdoors, playing in parks, exploring a garden or a wilderness, or wandering beside a stream. Until they reach adolescence, children outdoors walk and run, chasing animals and each other, discovering the mysteries of the natural world, until they are tired; exercise is a by-product of discovery and purpose. The beauty and mystery of the natural world draws them – the wind, the different colors of the sun and sky in all weathers, trees and flowers, secret worlds that they create in the wild hidden spaces they discover. Sleep came easily when children were worn out from running and playing outdoors. Yet as a society we have taken away so much of this wonderful time, replacing it with indoor gym classes, ballet, karate or taekwondo – a daily hour of programmed time that rarely introduces them to the delights of sun and wind, water and wildness.
The hour a day, twice a week, or even every day, that most children devote to exercise in classes or sports doesn’t begin to equal the many hours a day that children, even as recently as the 1960’s, spent playing, walking, and running outdoors. Children fished, created secret forts in the woods, and helped in gardens. Many more children walked or rode their bikes to school as well. As a result of changing exercise patterns from natural activity outdoors to fewer, scheduled hours, often indoors, children and teenagers are more overweight than ever before in our history, and more out of shape. Increasing numbers have sleep problems, an issue that used to be associated more with overly worried adults and the elderly. This article addresses sleep and exercise for children and teenager’s with Asperger’s Syndrome, but will address exercise first, because the lack of exercise in fresh air is at the root of many sleep problems.
At the dawn of history, human beings walked and ran, swam in rivers and lakes, climbed hills, gathered and hunted, and spent every day outdoors. Later, human beings began to farm and herd animals, and still spent most of their time outdoors, using their muscles, walking and lifting, digging and pulling or pushing a plough. Up until a hundred years ago, eighty percent of the population of the United States still lived on farms, and children and adults spent large parts of their lives outdoors, exercising, not on a track or exercise machine, but in productive work. Gradually, more and more people began to spend larger portions of most days indoors as jobs in factories and jobs in the service sector increased. More children attended school; by 1918, all states had mandatory education laws that required all children to attend school until they graduated from eighth grade or turned 16, whichever came first. By the 1960’s most families had television, adding another sedentary activity; by the mid 1990’s, the average 4th grader spent 40 hours a week watching television. Recently most American children have added time on the computer to their day. Between the full-time sedentary work of attending school and doing homework, and the time, equivalent to a second full-time job, that many children spend on television, computers, video games, and other electronic devices, a majority of children now spend very little time outdoors, or getting exercise either indoors or outdoors, especially during the school year.
But a strange thing has happened: doctors, teachers, and parents alike seem unworried by this drastic change in time spent getting natural exercise outdoors. It seems that doctors and teachers, asking if a child gets exercise, are frequently satisfied with a list of organized after school activities. Busy parents with full-time jobs, also usually inside during the daylight hours, feel they have done the best that they can if the children participate in at least one or two of these organized after school activities. Paying for them and chauffering or arranging rides for these classes and sports can be exhausting; the thought of doing more may seem overwhelming. Children and teenagers with Asperger’s Syndrome may be especially at risk for losing opportunities for physical exercise because they may be awkward in organized sport classes.
And organized activities may not always be the best choice because free time outdoors, whether playing or doing simple tasks, provides a time for physical and mental relaxation when thoughts can wander creatively, even as we learn and gain insights from the natural environment. In The Secret Garden, the children discover the magic of helping a garden grow, healing themselves through play in the natural world. Colin and Mary have been “indoor” children; Dickon introduces them to the wild creatures and his love of the moor and “growing things”. In our own lives, time in our ‘secret garden” when we can daydream, resolve problems at our leisure, meditate or pray, or dream up new projects, is essential for living well. Finding the secret garden may be difficult at first, as difficult as it was for Mary to find the key to the garden in the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, but once we find it, we are lured there again and again by the peace and well-being we feel within ourselves.