The consequences of children spending less time outdoors

Children are spending less time outdoors with important consequences for their health and the health of the planet.

There are many different outdoor activities to choose from, such as jump roping.
There are many different outdoor activities to choose from, such as jump roping.

Fond childhood memories of roaming through rural farm fields, suburban cul-de-sacs, and city parks late into the summer evening are increasingly a thing of the past. Today’s children have exchanged bicycles for Wii consuls and tree houses for iPads. A report released by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that the average child in America between the ages of six and 17 spends just seven minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play. That represents a 50 percent decline over 20 years. In other words over the span of a generation American children are now spending half as much time outdoors.

A variety of factors are contributing to this decline. With more extracurricular activities and school pressure children are increasingly over-scheduled and enjoy less free time in general. Time spent on computers and media entertainment has risen significantly. Parents are also more reluctant to allow their children to play outdoors unsupervised, despite declines in national crime rates.

The shift away from time spent in the fresh air has alarmed health experts who point to the many mental and physical benefits of outdoor play. Access to green space has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress. Children engaged in unsupervised play in natural spaces demonstrate improved self-esteem, risk detection, and creativity. Regular active outdoor play has also been shown to lower the risk of childhood obesity and Type II diabetes.  

What is less often studied is what impact the trend of children staying indoors might have on the environmental consciousness of future generations. Environmentalists often point to youth as future stewards of the natural world. What will happen to their sense of stewardship as our children become increasingly disconnected from nature?

Researchers at Cornell University attempted to address this question by examining the relationship between time spent in nature as a child and pro-environment attitudes and behaviors. They found that those individuals who participated in activities such as camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, and playing in natural areas before the age of 11 were more likely to demonstrate pro-environment attitudes and behaviors as adults.

Allowing children time to explore and interact with the natural world is critical not just for their physical and mental health but for the health of our planet as well. Check out this article by Michigan State University Extension for some ideas on outdoor activities this summer. 

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