Dear Mr. Dad: My kids, 9 and 11, spend a fair amount of time with electronic games but my husband and I insist that they spend an equal amount of time reading. They both play outdoor sports (one does soccer, the other baseball), but no matter what we do, we just can’t get them to hang around outside and have fun by themselves. Got any suggestions?
A: What you’re describing sounds like a case of Nature Deficit Disorder—a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his book, “Last Child in the Woods.” Louv says that there are significant psychological, physical, and cognitive costs to not spending adequate time in nature.
Although Louv’s phrase sounds a little alarmist—after all, the last thing parents need to worry about is yet another disorder—there’s a growing body of research that supports the idea. For example, Americans are about 25 percent less likely to visit National and State Parks than we were just 25 years ago. Our children spend less time playing outside—and a lot more playing inside—than we did at their age. They’re what one researcher calls “the backseat generation,” much less likely than we were to walk or bike to school because they’re getting driven everywhere.
When kids finally do get to play outside, they don’t get nearly the same amount of freedom to explore as we did, and playtime (including organized sports) is so highly structured and there are so many rules that all the fun of running around and exploring is sucked out.
The situation is aggravated by elementary schools—and there are plenty—that have reduced or eliminated recesses. And just a few years ago, a number of environmental groups were outraged when the publisher of the “Oxford Junior Dictionary” got rid of a number of nature-related words, such as beaver, dandelion, heron, acorn, clover, otter, and blackberry. New words have been added, though, including broadband, blog, MP3 player, voicemail, and Blackberry (with a capital B).
The good news is that play in nature—particularly unstructured play—benefits children in a variety of ways, including improving problem solving skills, increasing focus and creativity, bolstering self-discipline, reducing stress and aggressive behavior, and even increasing IQ.
So how do you get your kids outside? There are a ton of options.
- Do some research. The Children & Nature Network has compiled a huge (and growing) list of organizations, campaigns, and programs. The list (at childrenandnature.org/movement/info) will help you connect with resources in your community. Other groups, such as the Sierra Club (sierraclub.org/youth) and National Wildlife Federation (nwf.org/Kids) have programs aimed at children.
- Do some reading. There are lots of places to get suggestions for outdoor activities to do with your kids. Two recent books that I really like are “Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors,” by David Sobel and “It’s a Jungle out There! 52 Nature Adventures for City Kids,” by Jennifer Ward.
- Set a good example. Looking up from your computer to tell your kids to get out and play isn’t going to work. So put some air in your bike tires, dust off your skateboard, buy some bug repellant, get your sleeping bags and tent cleaned, put new batteries in your flashlights, and start making plans. Ease into it. Start with a five-mile bike ride or a two-hour hike before you jump into overnighters. The object is to get everyone interested in and excited by spending time outside. You may get some pushback from the kids early on, but once they get their hands dirty, they’ll love it.