Those of us of a certain age probably remember long summer days with a degree of fondness. Those were the days we were outdoors from the early morning until we were called home for family dinner time. They were days spent riding bicycles, exploring the surroundings and sometimes just lying in the grass staring up at the clouds in the sky.
Unfortunately, it appears that long days spent outside are no longer the norm for American youth. According to a National Parks and Recreation research study, outdoor time has dropped dramatically with American youth spending about five to seven minutes per day in “spontaneous outdoor play.” Instead, children are spending an average of seven and a half hours per day on screens. That’s 52 and a half hours a week on screen related activities!
The results of this sedentary lifestyle have had serious consequences for the 74 million youth of our nation. Latest numbers indicate that nearly 31% of our children ages 10 to 17 are either overweight or obese, putting them at a serious health risk both now and later in life. Overweight children may develop what used to be the adult diseases of Type2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma and sleep apnea. Although many of the conditions can be reversed by losing excess weight, obese children often become obese adults and carry the illnesses with them. A 2007 study even warns that the life span of today’s youth may be three to five years shorter than that of their parents due to an inactive lifestyle.
Obese children frequently become the target of bullying or become social outcasts resulting in emotional scars that be overwhelming. A report by the CDC indicated that 26% of overweight girls and 30% of overweight boys are bullied on a daily basis at school. The National Institute of Health concluded that overweight youth, particularly girls,” have a higher prevalence of school difficulties and mental health problems, including poor academic performance and self-esteem, anxiety, depressive disorders, and a greater number of reported suicide attempts.”
By spending time in nature, young people benefit in countless ways. The most obvious outcome of spending time in active outdoor play is achieving and maintaining a healthy weight which in turn helps boost overall health in the present and increases the likelihood of good health later.
There are also some additional, less well-known benefits for children who spend time in nature. Spending time outdoors raises levels of Vitamin D, resulting in stronger bones and teeth plus increased resistance to some diseases such as certain types of cancers and diabetes. Children who spend time playing in the dirt are exposed to healthy bacteria, parasites and viruses that help boost their immune systems and perhaps reduce the risk of allergies and asthma.
Better eyesight in children is tied to time spent outdoors. The number of American children who are diagnosed with myopia has risen sharply in the last fifty years. Nine percent of children ages 3 to 17 are nearsighted. Although there is definitely a genetic factor involved, a recent research study by The Keck Medical Center at the University of Southern California connects the increase in part to the hours of daily screen time common in the lives of our young people. While myopia is correctable with eyeglasses, severe myopia can lead to retinal detachment, macular degeneration and cataracts, which in turn can lead to blindness.
According to a Position Statement published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, children who spend unstructured play time outdoors tend to develop a sense of self-regulation and resilience that isn’t always present in children who spend time indoors. Experts feel that unstructured outdoor play, especially in a “natural outdoor environment,” allows children to not only take more risks, but also to learn to assess and manage those risks. One finding suggests that children who learn to manage risks as children are more likely to avoid substance abuse later.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, children who develop a love for the outdoors become adults who love their natural environment, who understand its value to society and who will work to promote it and protect it for future generations. I can’t think of a better, more important gift to give our children than the gift of being in nature.