The statistics on how much time American children spend outside each day is startling. The National Recreation and Park Association states that the average child spends only four to seven minutes engaged in unstructured play outdoors, while spending an average of seven and a half hours in front of screens. Outdoor recess time helps elementary school-aged children increase those numbers slightly, but not every child has access to recess every day. Also, cold or rainy weather usually leads to “indoor recess,” which typically means watching a movie, further reducing outdoor time totals.
When you take into account the fact that the American Association of Pediatrics recommends at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity, the four to seven-minute statistic becomes further alarming. Today’s children are starved, not only of movement, but of time spent outdoors and of the experience of connecting with nature. This generation of children is spending more time indoors than any other generation.
The U.S. National Wildlife Federation suggests that children should spend at least one hour a day outside. To that aim, it has developed the “Green Hour Program,” designed to encourage parents, schools, camps, grandparents, and others to adopt a goal of an hour per day of time for children to play and learn outdoors in nature.
Why all of the emphasis on getting kids outside? Research has shown a strong health benefit for young people who spend time in nature. Studies have shown that being in nature can reduce negative emotions like anger, fear, and stress, while increasing positive feelings. Exposure to nature also improves immune function in children, making them less susceptible to illness. Children are also more likely to be active outdoors, thereby improving their physical fitness and coordination. Interestingly, time spent outdoors in childhood also reduces the likelihood of needing glasses for nearsightedness. The current thinking is that the brighter light outside stimulates a release of dopamine from the retina, which slows down the growth of the eye, preventing nearsightedness.
Outdoor time also affects children’s engagement and attention when learning. Researchers at the University of Illinois determined that just 30 minutes of time in a park-like setting can help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to be able to concentrate in the classroom and/or to act more calmly and be more focused at home. Time outdoors also led to an increase in curiosity and problem-solving ability.
It doesn’t take much. Being outside confers attention and engagement benefits, even if there is no student interaction or free play allowed. It is the act of being outside that helps students to focus better. Research found that when students received outdoor lessons, they were significantly more engaged in their next indoor class period than if the same class was held indoors. In some cases, teachers only had to redirect off-task behavior half as often!
As if you needed any more reason to get your child outside, research also shows that the best way to connect a child to a lifelong interest in nature and wildlife is through time spent outdoors. A Cornell University study found that children who spend a significant amount of time in nature doing activities such as camping or hiking when they are young, are more likely to be conservationists, or at least conservation-minded as adults.
So how can you help your child get more time in nature? Being aware of the benefits to doing so is the best first step. Then, make it manageable for your family. If you can’t get outside an hour a day, aim for 30 minutes a day. If that doesn’t work with your busy schedule, break your goal time into 10-minute chunks. Encourage your child to play outside, but don’t forget to include yourself in the fun – you deserve the benefits, too! Take a family walk after dinner. Read your child’s bedtime story out on the porch. Turn dinner into a picnic on the lawn. Lay a blanket out and count the stars together.
One caveat? Don’t approach getting outside as one more thing on the to-do list. Your children will pick up on the fact that spending time outside is viewed as a chore, or one more scheduled activity. In the long run, it might hurt their desire to be outside. Sometimes the easiest way to approach increasing your time in nature is to look at what you already do as a family to determine if you could be doing some of those activities outside, instead. When you encourage your child to go outside to play and have fun, and he or she also sees you taking time to enjoy nature yourself, the message is clear. Nature is one of our greatest gifts, and time spent outside is a priority we should set for the health and happiness of ourselves and of our children.
Alison Bogle is an Austin-based freelance writer and mom of three.