Are Kids Extinct in the Wild ?

Though we often look back at childhood with rose-tinted spectacles, one thing is unquestionably true. We spent a lot more time playing outside than today's children do. Where vast herds of unfettered youth once swept majestically across urban play areas, residential streets are now almost totally abandoned by young playmakers. Bombarded with technology and with instant access to games, films and other sedentary diversions, the amount of time kids spend in the great outdoors has been drastically reduced. When you add changing attitudes to what constitutes safety, it’s plain to see why children playing in the wild are an endangered species.


How Widespread is the Problem?

A recent UK study commissioned by the National Trust found that children spend half the time playing outside that their parents did. The survey revealed an internal conflict amongst parents. Though 83% recognized the importance of technology in their child's development, 96% thought it essential that their children should play outdoors and develop a connection with nature. The National Trust research also showed that children are playing outside for an average of just over four hours a week. This compares unfavorably with 8.2 hours for their parents when they were children.

UK government study found that 10% of respondents have not even been in a natural environment such as a park, forest or beach for at least a year. It showed that overall engagement with outside rural spaces is low in the modern age, and as you might expect, highly dependent on both the parent's attitudes to outdoor activity and their socio-economic status.

But it's not just a UK phenomenon. A recent study by the Seattle Children's Research Institute appearing in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine discovered that almost 50% of preschoolers lacked even one parent-supervised outdoor play session per day. The Alliance for Childhood complain that children now spend 50% less time in unstructured outdoor activities than they did in the 1970's. On average, children aged 10 to 16 now spend only 12.6 minutes a day on vigorous outdoor activity compared with 10.4 waking hours being relatively motionless.

So it is clear that there is a definite shift in children's behavior. We are raising a generation of sedentary kids who would much rather sit on the couch with a game controller and Mario than be outside armed only with a stick and their imagination. But what problems can that cause?


What does it mean for Kids?

Potentially the lack of outdoor activity could have many consequences. There are many studies that show real benefits to outdoors play that children could be missing out on. It's not just fresh air and pretty scenery, there are real physical and mental benefits to spending time outside.

Of course the benefits of physical exercise are well known. Being outside and moving around gives your child a healthier start in life. Regular exercise helps with muscle tone, lung capacity and overall fitness. It strengthens the heart and wards off coronary disease later in life. It also greatly reduces the risk of obesity. As an added bonus, just being outside, manipulating real world objects and navigating real environments can help develop motor-skills and spatial awareness.

Additionally, your body creates Vitamin D as a result of exposure to the sun. This is essential in children to help build strong bones and again reduce the risk of heart disease. Just being outside helps greatly to boost Vitamin D levels. There is even evidence to suggest that exposure to the sun can also help with eyesight as pupil restriction helps train the muscle and increase farsightedness.

As well as the physical benefits, children also receive a great boost to mental acuity by spending time outdoors. A study in the American journal of Public Health shows that ADHD symptoms in children can be greatly reduced by time spent in natural environments. It shows that in kids who spend more time outdoors, Independent thinking is encouraged and they often show better focus than kids who do not spend much time outside. So an increase in outdoor time can help improve a child's attention span.

The emotional wellbeing of children who play outside is also significantly affected. A recent study by The University of Queensland (UQ) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) suggests that those who frequent parks for over half an hour per week are much less likely to suffer from poor mental health episodes than those who don’t.

"If everyone visited their local parks for half an hour each week there would be seven per cent fewer cases of depression and nine percent fewer cases of high blood pressure." Said Dr Danielle Shanahan, UQ CEED researcher.

UQ CEED researcher Associate Professor Richard Fuller said the study should be used to change people's urban park habits.

"We've known for a long time that visiting parks is good for our health, but we are now beginning to establish exactly how much time we need to spend in parks to gain these benefits. We have specific evidence that we need regular visits of at least half an hour to ensure we get these benefits." He said.

In the UK, a study that tracked changes in people's mental health showed that moving to more natural areas and spending more time outdoors drastically improved a person's sense of wellbeing. That correlates with the sense of relaxation and calm people often report when surrounded by the beauty of nature.

The physical and mental benefits of outdoors play for children cannot be understated. On top of all that, outdoors play can also help with socialization and skill learning. A child's mind develops rapidly and benefits greatly from interactions with other children. As they are more likely to encounter other kids outdoors, away from the home, outdoor activity is a great boon to social development.

Interacting with other children, they get to develop areas such as:

  • Waiting their turn.

  • Following rules.

  • Dealing with frustration and anger without tantrums or lashing out.

  • Sharing their toys.

  • Making new friends.

These skills are all components of healthy social-emotional development and are more easily learned outside the home. Other skills such as camp making and fire starting for older children, running, swimming, games and sports are all essential parts of the outdoor experience.

The weight of evidence is clear. Outdoor play leads to physically and mentally stronger kids that are more confident and socially better adjusted. This is not to say there are no benefits to playing inside, however. Indoors play can be hugely beneficial to the imagination. It can enhance creativity and other cognitive development depending on the activity chosen.

As well as improving comprehension and vocabulary, reading books improves memory and knowledge, stimulates brain function, reduces stress levels and increases your child's attention span. Looking at the data of the British Cohort Study it's clear that those children who read for pleasure show far greater intellectual progress than those who don't. The study shows that the effect of reading for pleasure on a child's cognitive development was around four times greater than that of having a parent with a post-secondary degree.

This study for the Royal Conservatory of Music shows that musical education benefits both the brain's structure and function. Learning an instrument 'exercises' the brain and improves memory, cognitive development and can even improve concentration and energy levels.

Arts and crafts-based activities help to improve creativity, artistic eye and hand-eye coordination. Enhanced creativity helps greatly with the art of problem solving, which is an essential skill throughout many jobs and at other times in life.

All of these primarily indoor activities can have a positive impact on a child's life both in terms of enjoyment and later work opportunities. Even the much-maligned computer game can have positive impacts on the development of children. A study conducted by the University of Strathclyde on the impact of playing games amongst 16 year olds concluded the following:

'No evidence was obtained of negative outcomes among game players. On several measures - including family closeness, activity involvement, positive school engagement, positive mental health, substance use, self-concept, friendship network, and disobedience to parents - game players scored more favorably than did peers who never played computer games. It is concluded that computer games can be a positive feature of a healthy adolescence.'

So it is simplistic to say that outdoor activities are good, indoor bad. There are benefits to both indoor and outdoor play for children. It is clear though that in our modern age, the balance has swung too far in favor of indoor activities and this is something that must be addressed if children are to reap the benefits. Getting children to spend more time outdoors is essential if we are to give the next generation physical and mental health they need to thrive in life. But in order to facilitate this, we must have a clear understanding of why this change has occurred. We need to understand the factors that caused this paradigm shift.


Why are Children Playing Outside Less?

Technology is the big headline. Children are bombarded with new entertainment mediums, from more established tech like TV and film to cutting edge games, social media and mobile phones. There are more diversions than ever to occupy the minds and time of children. But it would be way too simplistic to say that everything is the fault of the rise in new media.

It is true to say that technology has had a huge impact though. According to a US study by NPD, a whopping 91% of children aged 2- 17 play video games. This is a figure that is up nearly 13% from a study conducted in 2009. There are more devices than ever to play games on, from home consoles to PCs and mobile phones.

Research in the Journal Pediatrics noted that mobile phone technology is now hugely widespread with an almost unbelievable 97 percent of US children under the age of four having used mobile devices, whether their own or belonging to the household. It even showed that an incredible 28 percent of two-year-olds can use a mobile device unassisted.

Social media usage is also far more pervasive than ever before. Despite scares in the media about online abuse, some studies have shown that half of children aged 10 have used some form of social media. 52% of children aged 8-16 ignore the official age limit and sign up for Facebook accounts. Child-friendly social media sites such as Kidzworld and Club Penguin also account for a great deal of online social interaction amongst the young.

It's not just new media on the rise, either. There is far greater access to more traditional forms too. Streaming sites such as Netflix make it easier than ever to watch films and TV shows on demand, with a huge library to engage avid users of the site. With all of the shiny new technology and entertainment options on display, it is easy to see how children are enticed to spend more and more time indoors consuming this media.

When you add new technology to the weight of the other indoor attractions, such as books, music and the creative arts, there are many alluring reasons for children to stay indoors. But it's not just the wealth of activities available in-house that has caused the swing to indoor play. There are a couple of other considerable factors too.

There has been a general trend towards reduction in the amount of play spaces available to children in urban areas around the world. As the value of land increases, it can seem much more important to build new apartments or office blocks rather than leave open spaces for kids in cities to play in. Though many urban areas are waking up to the importance of open spaces for the happiness and productivity of its citizens, there are still huge financial pressures to makes every open space a more 'productive' part of the landscape.

Town planners are not entirely responsible for the demise in children's play areas though. There has also been a big shift in parental attitudes over the years and the attitudes of child caretakers, such as teachers and nursery staff. An atmosphere of fear has built up amongst those responsible for looking after children.

Research by the National Children’s Bureau in the UK revealed that nearly 50% of parents let “fear of strangers” prevent them from allowing sons or daughters to play outside. This fear is mostly media-driven with crime statistics showing that child kidnappings or attacks are definitely not on the rise.

The study also showed that over 46 per cent also had severe concerns about the danger of traffic, while a third was afraid that children would get physically hurt while playing in parks, streets and playgrounds. Organizations that look after children, such as nurseries or schools are also greatly concerned with the possibilities of being sued should a child injure themselves while under their care. Sadly, this risk averse culture is actually harming kids rather than protecting them as it is contributing to them having a far more coddled childhood, leading to a lack of independence later in life.


Can Kids be Safely Reintroduced to the Great Outdoors?

It can seem like there is nothing you can do to fight the rising tide of technology and fear. Maybe our children are doomed to a life spent indoors, tucked away from the stimulations of nature? But don't worry. There are sensible steps you can take to ensure your child enjoys the many benefits of outdoor play. Remember that you are not trying to turn your child into Bear Grylls, just gently encourage them to enjoy and explore all that nature has to offer. There are three simple steps to take:

  1. Set sensible indoor boundaries.

  2. Make the outdoors fun again.

  3. Safely relax.


Set Sensible Indoor Boundaries

So firstly, it is up to you to control how much time your child spends indulging themselves with indoor pursuits. Set limits for the amount of TV they can watch, the time spent playing games or engaging with social media. I'm not talking about draconian laws stopping them from having fun - these could ultimately be counter-productive - but ensure there are fair boundaries. Explain to your child that spending all day in front of a screen is not healthy and that they need to mix up their activities.

You can also use time spent with technology as a reward for desired behaviors, such as playing outside with friends. You will likely find that, after initial resistance, your child begins to enjoy outdoor play as much as the indoor 'treats'. They key thing is to break-up the habit of coming inside and automatically putting on the TV or looking at a mobile phone. Ensure they understand that a mix of activity is an essential part of a balanced day.


Make the Outdoors Fun Again

At least equally important as setting restrictions on shiny technology is to make the outdoors as appealing to your child as possible. Cast your mind back to childhood and remember the things that intrigued you and set fire to your imagination. Make sure your child has all the tools at their disposal to enjoy the best the outdoors has to offer. Let them use their creativity to bring playtime to life.

Think about activities and games you can teach them to help them get the most from outdoor play. These can be anything from simple games to more complex ones. Here are some examples to get you started:

  • Hide and Seek: one person closes their eyes and count to 50. Everyone hides and when the catcher opens their eyes they must find all the hidden people.

  • Tag:  One person is ‘it’ and must chase the others. If they touch a person that person becomes ‘it’ and must do the chasing.

  • Freeze Tag: A variation on classic Tag. If a person gets touched they must freeze in place. Other people can unfreeze them by crawling under their legs. If the catcher freezes everyone, they win the game and the last person to be frozen becomes it.

  • Marbles: Relatively cheap, this classic game will keep kids entertained for hours.

  • Jump Rope: great exercise and loads of fun. There are many different games you can play with a long length of rope and a whole bunch of friends.

  • Catch: Everyone stands in a big circle and throws a tennis ball to whoever they like. You simply have to catch the ball. If you drop the ball, you must catch with only one hand. Drop the ball again and you must stand on one leg to catch. Drop the ball a third time and you are out. The winner is the last person in the game.

  • Frisbee: Throwing and catching a frisbee is great entertainment for kids. There are tricks you can pull off and even the ultimate frisbee sport to enjoy. Look at Frisbee golf too for variations!

  • Treasure hunt: If you have the time and are not keen on competitive games, why not set-up a treasure hunt with clues. Kids can work together to decipher the clues and find the treasure.

  • Balls: Balls come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common. They are lots of fun to throw or kick around, with or without rules.

  • Hoops: Simple plastic hoops. Y’know, for kids. Healthy and fun for all the ages.


In addition to activities, it is important to give children a space that is their own to enjoy and have adventures. If you have a backyard, why not provide an area for them to enjoy and use how they will. Forts and treehouses are the stuff of childhood dreams. Even secret hideaways in the bushes that they can stamp their marks on become magical places for children to while away the hours. Sticks can become wands, spears or magic staffs in a child's furtive imagination. If you have the space, make orbuy a sandpit. They are sources of endless fun for young children and are super-easy to make and maintain.

If you don't have a backyard, make playdates at local parks and playgrounds. If you are meeting other friends with children, so much the better. Grab a coffee and go to the parks allowing you to catch up while your kids play. If there are other outdoor spaces in your area such as beaches or forests, take full advantage. Use websites like Trip Advisor to find attractions in your local area. You will find there is more to do in your area than you thought and variety will provide more stimulation for your children. Make it a regular thing so it becomes part of their weekly routine.


Safely Relax

Feeling protective over your children is entirely natural. But remember they are also very resilient and tough. It is rare the child that escapes childhood without a few scrapes and bruises along the way, but that is a natural part of growing up. There are lessons learned with each episode that go towards making your child a stronger person.

There is nothing wrong with creating rules for outdoor play. Certainly not venturing out onto roads should be one of them, for example. But don't try to clear away all risks. Learning how to assess and contain risks is an essential part of childhood development and they should be able to make their own mistakes within well-defined parameters.

Though very young children should always be safely supervised, as children get older being trusted to be outside on their own is an important badge of achievement. It is up to the development of each child and the feelings of each parent as to when this time arrives but it will help to develop their self-confidence and feelings of self-worth.

Finally, try not to buy into the media hype about the dangers of outside play. Remember how much a part of your own childhood it was and remember how magical those times were. Things have not changed in terms of danger to children over the years. If you can relax within defined safety boundaries, you will give your child a balanced, healthy childhood, full of fun, imagination and play, that they will thank you for throughout their lives.