This Mom Wants Families to Get Outside for 1,000 Hours a Year

Right now most kids spend that much time online. Ginny Yurich wants that to change.

playing at the pond
Playing at the town pond.

K Martinko

Did you know that the average 8- to 12-year-old American child spends four hours a day on screens? That works out to over 1,200 hours a year, a staggering amount of time wasted on games, social media, watching videos, and whatever else consumes their attention in the moment. While some of this screen time may serve a social or educational purpose, there's no way that most kids need that much of it. We also know that too much screen time comes at a cost to mental and physical health. Kids are suffering from being sedentary and online for too long.

One Michigan mother has a compelling antidote for this problem. Ginny Yurich, with five kids of her own, urges families to spend at least 1,000 hours outside every year. Because this works out to roughly the same amount of time that kids spend on screens, it shows that they do have the time to work it into their days, but swapping outdoor for online play will benefit them far more.

It all started a decade ago when Yurich had three little ones and was struggling to know "how to fill the time during those early years," a sentiment to which most new parents can relate. She felt pressure to enroll in local parent-and-baby programs, but these left her feeling more stressed. In 2011 a friend introduced her to Charlotte Mason, a British educator from the turn of the 20th century. As Yurich told Treehugger,

"Mason recommended that children spend a lot of time outside. She writes, 'Not two, but four, five or six hours they should have on every tolerably fine day, from April till October.' This one half-sentence, and a subsequent trial of this concept, changed the entire course of childhood for our family."

Starting in 2011, Yurich did what Mason suggested. She packed a lunch and blankets and took her kids to a park in Detroit, where they played from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Yurich left feeling refreshed. After that, nature became a top priority for the family. 

A year later, Yurich calculated that her kids had spent as much time outdoors as most American kids spend online. This, combined with the real benefits her family was experiencing from all the outdoor time, was the impetus for the creation of 1000 Hours Outside, Yurich's website and blog that challenges other families to do the same. She advises using a physical tracking sheet to see the progress.

"The simple act of having a goal makes a huge difference," Yurich told Treehugger. "Often, nature play is an activity that gets our leftover time. If there’s nothing else to do, we play outside. But that single tracking sheet, with all those spaces to fill in, keeps the outdoors at the forefront of our minds and reminds us that it is a worthy activity choice."

When asked whether an already-busy parent might view this challenge as yet another burden on their schedule, Yurich disagreed. 

"Any time we spend outside helps all of us. [It] has helped me be a better mother and a more present, grateful, and relaxed person. For my children, nature play has helped them socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively. There is not one other activity out there that gives you more bang for your buck – and often it doesn’t even cost a buck! ... This isn’t adding something more, but about a shift in how we schedule our time." 

Even though a thousand hours might seem like an enormous amount of time, Yurich maintains that many families find it quite doable, once they get started. "In fact, many families shoot for a number much larger than 1,000 hours! We utilize the evenings, weekends and vacations. A few weekend camping trips really add up." But the final total isn't what matters; it's the experience. 

"Whether a family reaches the goal of 1000 hours, goes over, or falls short, they still win. They win because with every sensory moment, the child flourishes. They win because the memories pile up. Mother Nature takes the edge off. In the open air, nature welcomes and absorbs the boundless spirit and relentless energy of childhood."

Yurich, who estimates that over 100,000 families worldwide have participated in her challenge so far, hears from numerous people whose lives have improved as a direct result of it. They share joyful photos and describe special moments they would've otherwise missed. This reflects exactly what Yurich has learned herself, that "everyone is growing, thriving, and happy when we consistently include nature time in our lives." 

As for her stance on screen time, Yurich said she aims for balance. "Screens are everywhere and will continue to be. The 1000 Hours Outside journey models a strategy to keep hands-on, real-life, real-world moments a priority in a tech-saturated world. Our best days are the ones where we’ve just run out of time for screens because we’ve been busy living life!"

This advice is particularly relevant following a year that many families have spent cooped up indoors and interacting with others predominantly online. It is a prime time to move as much of our lives outdoors as we can, both from the standpoint of mental health and from pandemic safety. Kids will thrive, parents will rejuvenate, and the world will seem a better, friendlier place.

If you're interested in joining the Challenge (which can be started at any point in the year and continued for 12 months), check out 1000 Hours Outside. There are tracker sheets you can print and hang beside the door for kids to color in.