You’ve probably heard that kids today spend far less time outdoors than they did two decades ago—it's probably true for you, too.
According to studies, American kids spend half as much time outside today as they did in the 1990s, and more than a quarter of British children spend less than 30 minutes a week (that's less than 5 minutes a day) outdoors.
There are many reasons for this, including the increase in time spent on digital devices. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that in 2010, kids ages 8–18 spent an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes using “entertainment media” per day.
The benefits of spending time outside are well-documented and include increased fitness levels, increased levels of vitamin D, improved vision, reduction in symptoms of ADHD, improved critical thinking skills, lower stress levels, and enhanced social interactions.
In addition, a study by Michigan State University, published in the Journal of the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, indicates there may be a powerful connection between the amount of time children spend outdoors playing and their desire to protect the natural world, their perception of beauty, and their expression of spiritual attributes.
The research (which included a limited group of 7- and 8-year-olds, most of whom were Christian) found when children spent 5-10 hours a week playing outside, they “expressed feelings of peacefulness and some believed that a higher power had created the natural world around them. They also reported feeling awestruck and humbled by nature’s power, such as storms, while also feeling happy and a sense of belonging in the world.”
The study also observed that children who more regularly play outside develop a deeper appreciation of beauty and wonder.
In addition, "parents of the children who expressed the highest affinity toward nature and the strongest spirituality spent significant time outdoors during their childhoods. And many of the parents believed such experiences shaped their adult lives and spirituality."
The big question, according to study coauthor Gretel Van Wieren, is how will this first generation of digital natives, who are just leaving their teens, be affected? After all, they got far more screen time than scree time.
What You Can Do Now
While studies continue to watch this generation and the next, there are things you can do to get your kids outside now. A quick Google search reveals many suggestions, and here are some general guidelines to help get your kids (and you) off the couch and out the door.
- Just 45 minutes a day. Five hours a week, broken up into 45 minute daily installments or experienced all at once in a weekend afternoon, is all it takes, according to the Michigan State Study, to foster a spiritual relationship with nature.
- Free play is important. Van Wieren encourages unstructured outdoor time to foster the developmental traits she studied. Children need “a diverse display of colors, sights, and sounds; uncertainty; multisensory qualities; and above all, aliveness.”
- Anywhere outside works. If you're an urban dweller, you may need to be a little more creative, but there is still plenty to explore. Writing in the Huffington Post, Ben Klasky, founder of the outdoor learning center IslandWood, describes how when one of his colleagues was a child in South Central Los Angeles, “he and his father grabbed a sledgehammer and smashed through their concrete patio to plant a garden.” For those without a patio, or who wish to keep their patio intact, city parks, public gardens, even street trees offer opportunities for natural exploration.
- Ease into it with technology. If your kids are really attached to their devices, try to engage them with an app that enhances their time outside. There are apps for everything from geocaching to plant and bird identification to star gazing.
© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies