I think back to the spring (pre COVID-19) when I relished in getting kids to play outside, and screen free, from the moment they got off the bus until dinner. We stopped at the park on the way home, where they flung their backpacks and ran for the swings. I noticed a handful of middle-schoolers playing on the sports fields, totally barefoot. With no phones or real materials – they were running, squealing, and jumping for joy as they played some game. And I got so excited to watch them.
I know it can be hard to get your kids to play outside (especially big ones) — but it’s crucial.
I know that times have changed, especially with the different school scenarios as the year ramps up. I am a pediatric occupational therapist, and so much of my role is to help children develop their occupation – TO PLAY. Play is in danger of becoming a lost art.
I fear for what this pandemic is taking away from them; and for how the screens of remote learning will alter their development.
In general (and in normal, non-pandemic times), children these days don’t have the time and space for unstructured play outdoors. So many kids have sports practices and loads of homework. Many go home and are in front of screens until bedtime. Either way, they don’t get the opportunity for free play outdoors. And now, some children have to be in front of screens for much of their day as they learn remotely.
How scary are these statistics?
- kids over 10 only average about 12 minutes a day of rigorous play outside. That’s less yard time than inmates – they get 2 hours!
- adolescents ages 10-16 sit motionless for around 9 hours per day.
- the average American child gets 4-7 minutes per day of unstructured play outside
- Students spend an average of 7 hours in front of a screen.
We know that there is an increase in anxiety and depression, and even suicide rates for kids in current times. Kids today are under extreme amounts of stress, and something has to give. The health and developmental benefits to being outdoors are plentiful. The basic facet of moving and exercising is good for the physical body and brain. Getting light and vitamin D from the sun can help the immune system, sleep cycles and mood. Using the imagination and fostering creativity is another perk of playing outdoors, these benefits can also carryover to the school setting. The social benefits of working with peers to navigate unstructured play is important too.
In our town, we are working towards a mandate in the schools that each child has equitable time outdoors, including the middle school level. A group of parents have succeeded in getting this written into a policy at a school board meeting, and they are diligently committed to seeing it put into practice. While it’s critical for our schools to be on board, it’s important for healthy habits around outdoors and play start at home.
Some Tips for Getting Kids Outside
There are innumerable benefits in more outdoor playtime for kids. From better school performance to more friends, outside is best.
1. Get rid of the screens as much as possible- at least during the week, as long as it doesn’t interfere with homework
2. Walk to school – In our small city, most kids are within a mile radius and can walk (I think it might be cooler than mom driving, but I’m not sure).
3. Set a routine – Insist that the first 30 minutes home from school is outside, before homework or any evening commitment. Establish an activity for the whole family to do each weekend. Make it seasonal: paddle boarding/kayaking in the summer, hiking in the fall, snowshoeing or skiing in the winter.
4. Mimic the school schedule – On the weekend, make sure they get a regular dose of fresh air, at least midday. I appreciate some of the seasons for this part, if there’s a sports game or ski race, at least it’s a start to some “green time”
5. Be mindful of the extra-curricular schedule – Maybe they play one sport per season, or one practice per day. It’s hard to say “no” to the physical things (it’s all good), but remember that some down time for imagination and creativity is important too.