By Holland Gistelli, Education Specialist
Confirming what you’ve probably noticed, research shows that our children are spending far less time outdoors than they used to even just a decade or two ago. With the fast-paced growth of technology and its integration into our daily lives, screen time has been increasingly taking the place of “green time” in children’s lives. Children are just not getting out like they used to, with social media, video games, and even homework assignments all drawing them closer to their devices. As kids get older, their time spent outdoors has been shown to only decrease more. A recent study of middle school students showed 8th graders spend less time outdoors than 6th graders, and this was especially true for girls more than boys.
The average American child is spending five to eight hours per day in front of a screen!
Other reasons for less time outside can include concerns about safety, lack of access to outdoor spaces, or more engagement in after school obligations which take place indoors.
Regardless of the reasons why, there has been a marked decrease in time youth spend outdoors. This shift in how and where our children spend their time has impacts on their physical, mental, academic, and social well-being. The risk of developing myopia, or nearsightedness, can triple for children who spend more than seven hours a week looking at screens. There is also evidence that without sufficient time playing outdoors, kids are more stressed and moody, more likely to have disrupted sleep patterns, and have a harder time paying attention. Kids who do not get enough time outdoors are often less physically coordinated, and at increased risk for obesity and other health issues. Additionally, they are missing out on a lot of fun adventures and real-world learning that can be had while exploring the outdoors.
Despite what feels like a lot of bad news, there is still plenty of room for hope. There are practical and accessible ways to increase outdoor time and reduce these risks for children, and the benefits are beyond measure!
Children who engage in outdoor play have increased confidence, creativity, fitness and coordination, problem-solving skills, better school performance, improved eyesight, and can have more friends, and less stress and depression.
Unstructured outdoor play provides opportunities for children to take appropriate risks, develop social skills with peers, and nurture their natural curiosity and imagination.
All of these benefits are especially important for child development, but the benefits do not stop when one reaches adulthood. Adults can reap these benefits from spending time outdoors too! On top of that, adults and children who spend time outdoors together are given the opportunity to bond over their shared experience of the world around them. A recent study has even shown that when parents and their small children were outdoors in a park, their communication was much more “responsive and connected” compared to their conversations in an indoor space.
So, if you are looking for ways to connect with your kids and give them experiences to learn and grow from, consider making “green time” a part of your family’s weekly routine. Another wonderful thing about spending time outdoors is that it can often be a free or low-cost activity compared to other options. You can enjoy quality time outside without needing to buy expensive gear or equipment.
- Walk or bike to school – Play “I Spy” to make a game out of what you can notice along the way. Explore how the seasons change your favorite tree on your street. Check the weather forecast together so you can dress appropriately and be comfortable on your journey.
- Schedule outdoor time – The week can get busy. Plan specific times to get outdoors to make sure other priorities don’t get in the way. Try a 30 minute “Outdoor Reset” when kids get home from school, before tackling their homework. Or a “Green Hour” commitment with support from National Wildlife Federation’s resources: https://www.nwf.org/Kids-and-Family/Connecting-Kids-and-Nature
- Practice tuning into your senses – While you’re outdoors, ask your child what they notice—see, smell, hear, feel, maybe even taste (if it is safe to do so). You’ll be amazed at the wonders you can find together.
- Grow a garden – try growing something edible together like cherry tomatoes or strawberries. Track your plant as it grows from seed, to sprout, to plant, flower, and fruit. Give kids the chance to help with the tasks of planting, watering, and weeding. And of course, pick and taste the fruits of your labors!
- Visit a local nature preserve together, such as Pepperwood, to experience natural beauty together – We have some family experiences coming up like our Family Glamping Weekends for kids and for teens, and family nature classes like a Reptile Exploration and Nature Photography. Find out more about these events and register at https://www.pepperwoodpreserve.org/get-involved/classes-events/
- Visit a local park – Maybe you already have a favorite park, or you’re ready to explore a new place. In Sonoma County we are lucky to have a bounty of parks and open spaces that are open to the public, from the coast to the mountains and everywhere in between. Pack a picnic to enjoy while you explore! Check out Sonoma County Regional Parks: https://parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/Visit/Find-a-Park/.
- Create a new tradition – Celebrate birthdays with a camp-out or picnic, or try to visit the same park once each season to witness its changes.
- Join an outdoor group, class, or nature club – Check event listings for parks and preserves to find family-friendly guided excursions. Perhaps start a family nature club with friends or neighbors, and take turns planning your next group outdoor play-date.
- Check out the Together in Nature guide presented by the Children and Nature Network, available in English, Spanish, and French! – This guide provides suggestions for age-appropriate activities outdoors, as well as how to be prepared for your adventures. https://www.childrenandnature.org/learn/tools-resources/
References and helpful links:
Washington Post – Kids do not spend nearly enough time outside
Mother Nature Network – For a better conversation, take it outside
Child Mind Institute – Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature
Children & Nature Network – Kids Who Miss Out on Play Outside Are More Stressed, Moody and Have Shorter Attention Spans
Children & Nature Network – The Older Kids Get, the Less Time They Spend Outdoors