Children Belong Outdoors

June 4, 2012

As a parent, I fear we have forgotten that for generations, children grew up outside. We rode our bikes around the neighborhood and splashed around in creeks. We ran barefoot in the grass and climbed trees. Childhood was characterized by innocence, imagination, energy, wonder, and laughter. Frankly, the thought of being cooped up inside all day long was unfathomable and tortuous. Truth be known, that was how my dad punished me — I was sent to my room.

Yet today, research shows that the amount of time U.S. children spend outside has declined by 50 percent in the last two decades alone. On average, children currently spend 5.5 hours a day plugged into some kind of electronic device. Worse, yet, both the media and parents are often telling children and youth they should fear others and be afraid to go outdoors. As a result, silently and suddenly, we have a population of young people who may never have seen the stars, heard an owl in the darkness of night, or been surrounded by the miracle of nature versus the "progress" of man. Kids today even define the outdoors differently — for many of them, it's hanging out on a corner or on the hood of a car versus really enjoying the natural world.

Play time is markedly decreasing. According to researchers who monitor how our children are actually spending their time, outdoor activities are on the decline. Even walking is an endangered activity. William Doherty, a University of Minnesota researcher, reports that over the last twenty years, there has been a 25 percent decline in the time children spend playing and a 50 percent decline in time spent in unstructured outdoor activities. While fleeing indoors may not be a "movement" in itself, there is a profound cultural shift occurring. This shift threatens to leave behind an entire generation of the caretakers of this planet — who will fail to recognize the wonder and discovery of the open air and space, the awe and beauty of nature, or the importance of the ecosystem and its relationship to the quality of life.

We seem to all be tethered by invisible wires. I am not sure children today can feel the unspeakable liberation of moving, dancing, and running in open spaces, free of realized or unrealized confinement. Maybe that is the reality of today's world. Maybe it is imperative in order to keep kids safe. Yet, at what cost? Read more in my recent LA Family article, “Tuning into the Real World.”

Photo courtesy of Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park, Colorado.