Photo: Jenni Veal
Somehow the free-range outdoor days of childhood that many adults recall are no longer a part of childhood today. It’s less common to hear the voices of children riding bikes, climbing trees and playing ball in the yard into the twilight hours in neighborhoods across America.
Recent studies indicate that, on average, children in the U.S. spend about 30 minutes of unstructured play time outdoors each week. This crisis of childhood has a name. In his groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv coined it “nature-deficit disorder.”
“Nature-deficit disorder is not just a problem with children – this is a problem for society as a whole,” said Dr. Jane Jones, a pediatrician with Signal Mountain Pediatrics in Chattanooga, Tenn., and nature advocate, in a 2009 article in HealthScope magazine. “We all need to be outside and have fresh air more often.”
Psychologists argue that truly healthy kids need unstructured time and natural places where they can interact with the world on their own. While adult-organized sports have a place in childhood, they do not represent the unstructured play that researchers recognize as critical to childhood development.
As far back as 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was touting the importance of free play in the development of healthy children, with benefits including brain development, a more developed imagination, dexterity, emotional strength and physical strength.
Children today spend less time playing outdoors than their mothers and fathers did as children. A Hofstra University survey of 800 mothers, with children between the ages of 3 and 12, found that 70 percent of mothers reported playing outdoors every day when they were young, compared with only 31 percent of their children. Also, 56 percent of mothers reported that, when they were children, they remained outdoors for three hours at a time or longer, compared with only 22 percent of their children.
What has changed in American culture that keeps children and their parents indoors? In general, children ages 8 to 18 spend more time (44.5 hours per week) in front of computers, televisions and game screens than any other activity in their lives except sleeping, according to studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Additionally, 83 percent of kids ages 8 to 18 have at least one video game player in their home. Nearly 85 percent of mothers, in a recent survey, identified their child’s television viewing and computer game playing as the number one reason why their children don’t go outside to play more often.
Children develop habits at an early age, and if they are raised in front of a TV or computer or video game, those habits will continue through their adult years. “Technology is such an easy and addictive pastime,” said Jones. “There needs to be balance in allowing kids their pastimes, but putting a limit on it. Nighttime is a good time for video games and computers; daylight hours are good for being outdoors – without technological gadgets.”
Additionally, today’s children have harried lives that are organized and timed nearly to the minute. Well-intentioned parents spend their days toting children to and from school, after-school activities, sports, dance classes, clubs and social events. While each of these activities has the potential to be of value, many children – and families – are out of balance with the number of extracurricular activities that dominate their days and nights.
Even the opportunity to play outdoors in nature is becoming a thing of the past, as access to nature has been cut off. Woods are replaced by subdivisions, many of which are manicured and often times restrict what children can do with what is left of nature. School playgrounds are manicured, lacking woods and rough edges where children tend to naturally gravitate to explore. Most parks today are dominated by baseball and soccer fields and surrounded by suburbia.
Jean Lomino, Ph.D., former executive director of the Chattanooga Nature Center, confirms said she sees the nature-deficit phenomenon with students. “Many children who come to the nature center are afraid of being outside,” said Lomino. “I think a lot of that is learned behavior, and some of it is lack of experience.”
In a recent study, 94 percent of parents surveyed said that safety is their biggest concern when making decisions about whether to allow their children to engage in free play outdoors. In the media-driven world we live in today, with 24-hour newscasts from around the globe, parents are taunted with fear for the lives of their children.
Because the world has changed, the way we help children engage with nature has changed, too. Today’s prevailing concern about safety requires far more adult presence with children in nature. That means parents and other adults in the lives of children must be intentional about taking them outdoors to explore, discover and play.
It isn’t just the health of children at stake, but the future of stewardship ethics, as well. Studies of conservationists – or any adults with environmental awareness – show that childhood experiences of natural, rural or other relatively pristine habitats were the most frequently cited influences in their lives.
“People will not care about the world unless they have a love for it first,” said Lomino. “You only develop that love by experiencing it first.”
More and more, parents, teachers, doctors and leaders are recognizing the importance of the outdoors in the lives of children and families. Many are working to make changes in the community to increase access to the outdoors for all children.
The stakes are high. A child who grows up indoors, sitting in front of a TV or video game or computer, will become a much different adult than a child who spends free time roaming and exploring nature, discovering how beautiful and alive it is.
In today’s world, it is up to adults to create opportunities to share nature with the children in their lives.
It’s our goal with YourOutdoorFamily.com to help you find affordable and fun way to reconnect as a family in the outdoors. Our curated trips feature family-friendly destinations and activities across America. We take the work out of finding outdoor fun by searching out these destinations for you. We’re building a list of adventures across North America, beginning in the Southeast, and look forward to helping more families explore the outdoors.
Jenni Veal, Founder – YourOutdoorFamily.com