Those of us who are grandparenting age remember a time when it was unusual for a kid to know what the interior of their home looked like during day light. When we got home from school, we changed into “play clothes”, had a little snack and were sent outside until dinner time. Short of a Nor’easter or hurricane, weather didn’t matter. We were expected to dress for it and get out there — out from under our mother’s feet. When summer rolled around, we were outside from after breakfast to sundown.
We ran and jump-roped and hop scotched in summer and built snow forts in winter. We built playhouses out of whatever was around. Not being provided with our fun, we had to make our own. We were generally successful at it. And here’s the most surprising thing of all — There wasn’t an adult in sight. Unless we were bleeding, adults didn’t get involved.
So much unsupervised time outside meant that most of us were healthy and fit. We learned how to be leaders and followers. If we wanted to have teams, we had to include everyone who was willing. We learned how to use our imaginations and how to create structures and games out of whatever was available. We learned how to plan, how to come up with alternatives, how to decide the best thing to do, and how to negotiate with others. We didn’t know it at the time, but we also learned that being active outside is a great way to reduce stress and reduce feelings of anxiety or depression.
According to the National Recreation and Parks Association website, “Children today spend less time outdoors than any other generation, devoting only four to seven minutes to unstructured outdoor play per day while spending an average of seven and a half hours in front of electronic media.” Meanwhile. a new study by the U.K.’s National Trust. found that today’s parents report spending double that when they were kids.
Almost half of parents of school age kids worry that their kids aren’t outside enough and wish that it would happen more often. But many admitted that they rely on recess at school to get the kids out into fresh air and group play.
What has all this to do with mental health? Plenty. I’m not just being nostalgic for what used to be. Children spending less time outdoors has been linked to both physical and mental health problems. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, has coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to account for the many problems that can be attributed to too little time in nature. He suggests that such diagnoses as anxiety, depression, ADHD, myopia, obesity, and other conditions are caused or made worse in children who do not get enough unstructured time outdoors.
Too little time outside can result in:
Childhood obesity. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than one third of children and teens are overweight or obese. This is often connected to low self-esteem and depression.
Increase in mood disorders and depression. 2.5% of children and 5 – 8% of teens have been diagnosed with depression. Anxiety affects approximately 8% of all children and adolescents. The use of anti-anxiety medications has increased by almost 50 percent for children ages 10-19 between 2001-2010, according to Scott Shannon, who authored Mental Health for the Whole Child: Moving Young Clients from Disease & Disorder to Balance & Wellness. There is now enough evidence that being outside can mitigate symptoms and reduce the need for psychotropic medicines. In fact, prescribing time outside has become an international trend for treating anxiety and depression for adults as well as children.
Increase in the number of children diagnosed with ADHD. A study published in August 2018 found that ADHD diagnoses in children between the ages of 4 and 17 increased from 6.1% in 1997-1998 to 10.2% in 2015-2016. When kids don’t have recess during the school day, their pent-up energy can cause the wiggles and concentration problems that lead to the diagnosis.
Struggle with social skills. When kids don’t get outside to play with other children in the neighborhood without adult supervision and direction, they don’t have the opportunity to figure out how to get along, manage conflict, and create their own fun. Creativity and imagination suffer.
Serendipitously, as I was writing this article, a posting appeared on my FaceBook feed from the 1000 Hours Outside blog. In one of her posts, the writer reports that her research found that kids should ideally spend 4 – 6 hours a day outside. That may seem unrealistic. But remember, many children are spending at least that mount of time on electronic devices. Most of that time is better spent outdoors.
She and her husband challenged themselves to seeing to it that their children get at least 1000 hours a year outside with unstructured play. Other bloggers have taken up the challenge. They all say their kids are healthier, happier, more confident and creative, and, more concerned about what’s happening to our environment.
4 Ways to Get Started
- Get outside yourself. Model enjoyment of nature and fresh air. If you used to enjoy taking walks or going on hikes, participating in a sport or camping, figure out how to get those activities back into your life. You will feel less stressed and generally happier. Your kids will learn that taking care of themselves includes being out in nature.
- Get out there with your children. The National Wildlife Federation’s Be Out There Campaign recommends that parents aim for a daily “Green Hour“ of screen-free outdoor activity in natural settings even if they are just in a backyard or on a sidewalk. Eat breakfast on your porch. Have a picnic outside instead of dinner around your table. Go outside after dinner to have a catch or play a game. Find an outside activity that everyone in the family can do and enjoy. Ask the kids for ideas. Children whose parents enjoy spending time with them outdoors learn to value it.
- Teach your children how to have screen-free fun. They may have never learned how to hopscotch, double dutch, or kick the can. They may not know how to play capture the flag or how to create an obstacle course for themselves. They may have never thought of constructing a playhouse out of whatever is lying around. If you never learned these time-honored childhood outdoor activities, you can learn them together.
- Don’t be too quick to make suggestions when they say they are bored. Boredom can be a good thing. It can spark creativity. With some encouragement, the kids can come up with something to do out there. See this related article: Why parents should resign as Boredom Busters.