The average American child spends four to seven minutes a day on outdoor play, and approximately seven hours in front of a screen, according to the Child Mind Institute. The effects of a cooped-up lifestyle are about to take their toll, with some educators even calling it nature deficit disorder.
Outdoor play used to be commonplace, and for most outdoor-minded adults, adventure sports are an extension of their childhood shenanigans: climbing up trees, swimming in lakes, playing hide and seek. Even in the city, backyards, playgrounds, and parks provided ample ground for exploration. Getting muddy, scraped, and out of breath was a healthy counterbalance to school, homework, and chores. It connected young people to the natural world, piqued their curiosity and boosted confidence. Experts have long praised the value of these experiences for a developing mind, and for the general public, the pandemic became an important wake up call.
Seemingly insignificant activities such as playing with mud and dirt are now recognized as not only beneficial, but crucial to a healthy development of both body and mind. Going by various names from “rewilding childhood” to “free range parenting,” a new movement is taking root. It is, according to one author, a rebellion against growing up inside four walls.
It goes beyond getting dirty and being physical. Outdoors, kids are exposed to more daylight prompting greater production of vitamin D. Children also build social skills as a result of working with or competing against other children, and gain confidence by undergoing experiences that are far more stimulating than those offered by television or a video game. Outdoor play also improves critical thinking and, in neurodiverse children, reduces the symptoms of ADHD.
In addition to allowing kids to run free outdoors, research suggests that children benefit from play that involves a degree of risk. As tough as it can be for parents, letting kids climb a little bit higher or give in to a little peer pressure that results in challenging themselves can create valuable experiences. Children acquire risk management, executive function, self-confidence, and resilience, and while there might be a few bumps and bruises along the way, it’s proven that gaining better judgment as a result of these experiences helps to avoid more serious accidents in the future.
Heading outdoors is the first step to achieving a healthier childhood, and scraped knees, stinging nettles and ground in dirt is a signature of a happy, wholesome upbringing.
If you are interested in reading more, here is a list of books and resources to dive into:
- Rewilding Childhood. Raising Resilient Children Who Are Adventurous, Imaginative and Free, by Mike Fairclough
- Free Range Kids. Giving Our Children The Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, by Lenore Skenazy
- Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv
- The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids, a National Wildlife Federation Report