Remember when kids played outside? When we were children, a nice spring day was a welcome reprieve from the winter weather that (sometimes) kept us cooped up and feeling bored. Nothing was as exhilarating as getting back outside, meeting up with friends and being as loud and active as we wanted to.
But those times are no more. The combination of ubiquitous video games and high profile child abduction cases made us more and more comfortable with kids staying inside, and stay inside they do. Studies show that kids spend less than half as much time outside as they did twenty years ago. Compare that with a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study that showed kids ages 8-18 are spending up to 53 hours a week on entertainment media, such as computers and electronic games. One effect has been a doubling in the rate of childhood obesity, but it’s fairly obvious that kids will be in better shape after playing outside versus sitting at a computer. Other benefits to outside time are also important, but might not be so apparent:
- Children who spend time playing outdoors are more likely to engage in the type of child-directed play that researchers say promotes the development of self-regulation and leads kids to be better students.
- Bright, outdoor light assists in children’s eye development, and children who spend more time outdoors have lower rates of nearsightedness. (Incidentally, the rates of nearsightedness in the United States have risen from 25% to 42% in roughly the same period as the migration of children indoors.)
- Kids who spend time outside have lower levels of stress, leading to fewer problems with anxiety and anger management.
- Outside time provides a healthy outlet for a child’s natural energy, improving the quality of sleep and the ability to focus when necessary.
- Natural sunlight raises levels of Vitamin D in the body, which improves bone health and lowers diabetes risk.
- Children who spend time playing with other children outside (vs. alone on a computer) have better social skills and higher levels of empathy.
- Spending time outdoors increases a child’s appreciation of God’s gift of Creation and ability to be good stewards of the environment.
Clearly, safety is a concern these days, and children need to be well-supervised, especially when they are playing in the front yard. Worries about strangers and neighborhood bullies are often warranted. Other safety issues include adequate sunblock and hydration as well as appropriate play spaces (away from cars and other hazards). But it’s so important that kids have time outside that we must find ways around the challenges. Consider taking turns with other parents, supervising the children on your block as they play. Or offer your back yard as a place for your children and their friends to spend time together. Outdoor toys provide incentives to be outside, with activities that can’t be replicated indoors. Also, consider some family excursions to local parks or natural wonders. Let’s all come out of our shells a little!