It’s unlikely that you’ll have missed discussions relating to the growing global concerns about how little time “in nature” children in the developed world now seem to be spending in outside and unstructured play.
Some surveys have shown that in the US, the typical young child spends less than 10 minutes per day in external and unstructured play but between 7-8 hours in their homes in front of technology screens.
What’s causing this and why is it potentially bad news for future generations?
At the time of our grandparents and before, it was the norm for children to be urged to play outside for most of the day. That was almost irrespective of the weather.
If the kids got cold and wet, they got used to it. If it was hot, they would find shade.
Some of the activities were organised sport but the vast majority were play and games that the kids themselves developed.
So, what changed?
Although hard experimental evidence is hard to come by, contrary to expectations it seems that the development of technology alone hasn’t been the major causative factor. What has happened is that parents, the media and even schools, have increasingly reduced their support for external and unstructured activities and fed off each other’s mutual fears.
Those fears include:
- the safety of children when outside and unsupervised – typically meaning the threat from other humans;
- the outside natural world – seen increasingly as “dangerous and unregulated” meaning risks for kids from insects, animals, illnesses, plants, the sun and so on;
- the social correctness changes in society that now frown upon concepts such as competitive play and the natural evolution of those hierarchies that usually arise when children are left alone to design their own games;
- liability – some organisations, notably some schools, are reducing their allocations of outside playtime and external activities due to their fears of liability and legal action should anything go wrong. Some games children have played for centuries in playgrounds are now banned as being “too dangerous” etc.
While many of these concerns are unfounded or highly exaggerated, they have nevertheless played a major part in helping to drive children indoors. There is a perception that society is seeking an absolute zero-risk environment for children and that may come with a heavy price in terms of undesirable knock-on effects.
Does this matter?
Many experts have grave reservations over these tendencies. They point out that outside, unstructured and unsupervised play is often critically important in the development of healthy children, notably in:
- the unequivocally clear relationship between physical exercise and both physical and psychological well-being;
- helping children to develop their social engagement skills. They need to do this in part in all-kids’ environments as well as under adult supervision;
- encouraging the development of their imagination;
- bringing on their physical skills through more demanding outside play;
- very possibly helping to develop their immune systems by minor spills and injuries such as cuts and grazes;
- making them aware of the importance of the natural environment around them and their role in it. This may yield huge benefits for conservation in their later lives.
What can be done?
Numbers of experts are working hard to help educate and raise awareness of these issues amongst parents, care providers, schools and the media.
There are some signs that encouraging developments are starting to take place but much work needs to be done. The legitimate concerns of parents need to be understood and dealt with but the end conclusion is clear. For the sake of both parents and children, we must get our kids back out into the natural world.