Ann Priebe asked the approximately 100 adults, many of them with graying hair, at the Spring Valley Area Community Foundation banquet Saturday how many had played outside as a child. Many hands went into the air. Then she asked how many had parents with them while playing. The hands came down.

That isn't the case in the generation of children she sees in her job as coordinator and parent educator for Kingsland Early Childhood Family Education. Their free time is usually indoors in front of a screen and, even though the older children may not be with their parents, in a way, adults are watching them, whether it is to gain marketing information or worse.

I was one of those to raise my hand when she posed the question. Although I didn't grow up hunting and fishing, I spent nearly every waking, non-school moment outside - just playing - until the time I got my driver's license.

Although I took some risks my parents probably wouldn't have approved of and learned some things they wouldn't condone, it was a wonderful time roaming the woods and neighborhoods with other children. I learned a lot about life and myself.

I still have stronger memories of those random times than I do of the small amount of organized play, such as Little League, which back then also didn't have parents involved.

The world has changed since my childhood and Priebe isn't looking to change the world, but she is interested in giving children exposure to free playtime in a more natural environment. That's why she went to the foundation with a concept she and other people at the school came up with for an outdoor learning center in a nice, green courtyard surrounded by the walls of the school.

They could have made it a traditional playground, but instead decided on the concept of an outdoor learning center in an attempt to balance the grasp of technology on our children's lives.

She pointed to figures that show youth spend an average of 38 hours per week consuming media outside of school. In one study, interviews with children up to age 9 showed fear of natural elements, such as rain, wild flowers, birds and trees. Priebe feels those elements should instead evoke appreciation and enjoyment.

We all know children need more physical exercise, but many of us don't realize how much exposure to nature is lacking in the lives of our kids, even the ones living in rural Minnesota.

Nature-related activities for youth can encourage such things as observation, problem-solving skills, exploration, creativity and a sense of wonder, all of which are the basis for lifelong learning.

It isn't only in the Spring Valley area that a conscious effort to expose children to nature is being made. Project Get Outdoors, or Project GO, is running in Chatfield and other communities across Minnesota. It is available to any community in southeastern Minnesota that can get volunteers together to help.

Sara Grover, an interpretive naturalist at Whitewater State Park, is the founder and has been involved with Project GO since 2005. Project GO is an after-school program that tries to link youth with caring adult mentors for exploration, play and reflection in nature near local communities.

Grover was inspired by author Richard Louv, who wrote a book called "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder." His book has created a movement across the country that is coined "No Child Left Inside."

As Priebe found, Grover's research shows that outdoor play and exploration are essential for healthy development of the body, mind and soul. Studies have shown that children who regularly play outdoors in nature develop stronger social skills, creativity and problem-solving skills.

Grover's goal isn't just focused on education. She feels this link to nature will help children to grow up to become comfortable in the outdoors while instilling a respect and passion for the land.

You can learn more at the web site www.mnprojectgo.com.

The website cites research that shows early play, especially in outdoor settings, holds a special status for many people. These researchers have been struck by "the tenacity and clarity of these play memories, even after half a century into adulthood."

My experiences show that those researchers are right on the mark. I have vivid memories of those experiences, which contrast with the vague recollections of the television shows I may have watched as a child.

I grew up before hundreds of television channels were offered and the computer became a standard fixture in the home. It was a time when parents weren't afraid to let children roam.

There's no going back, but we at least need to give our children some of that unstructured exposure to the outdoors. They may not realize how important it is until their hair turns gray, but it will enrich their entire lives as they grow up and turn into adults.