The Older Kids Get, the Less Time They Spend Outdoors

CC BY 2.0. Mitch Barrie

It's a worrisome trend that parents need to fight against.

It comes as no surprise that kids these days are spending less time in nature than previous generations did, but it's always alarming when casual observations are cemented by formal research. A new study out of North Carolina State University and Clemson University has found that middle-school students, even those living in rural areas, are spending more time indoors and less outdoors. The culprit? Screens.

Middle school, defined as grades six to eight, can be a tough time for many young people, with their lives becoming more structured, academic pressure mounting, and priorities shifting. Amid all these changes, the total time spent in nature starts slipping more rapidly than in earlier years. It affects several demographic groups more than others: girls, African-American students, and eighth graders are most likely to experience a reduction in outdoor time, whereas maintaining a connection to nature is highest among boys, White students, and sixth graders.

The study, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, analyzed the recreational activities of 543 middle-school students across rural South Carolina. While most of the students spent some time outdoors, more was spent with electronic media. This is concerning not only because of the negative effects of overexposure to media (for which evidence is continually mounting), but also because these kids are missing out on the positive benefits of being outdoors.

Lincoln Larson, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of parks, recreation, and tourism management at NC State University, said in a press release,

"This is a problem because connection to nature plays a positive role in young people’s physical health and psychological development."

One reason given for lack of time spent outdoors is parental concerns over safety, particularly for young girls. The outdoors is seen as dangerous, which is somewhat ironic, considering how insidious the Internet can be. I am sure we can all think of more examples of young girls running into trouble on the Internet than encountering threatening individuals on a forest hike.

Edmond Bowers, study co-author and assistant professor of youth development leadership at Clemson, hopes this research can lead to better recreational choices for young people:

"Research on the impact of electronic media such as smartphones on youth development is just emerging, and the findings for wellbeing are mixed. A more holistic examination of youth activities could shed light on the benefits and costs of recreational choices."

As parents, the duty falls squarely on us to ensure that our children spend as much time outside as possible. So how does one go about doing this? Having a daily ritual helps. Here are some ideas for getting started:

- Have your child walk to and from school. If they complain that the walk is too long, they can ride a bike. This automatically packs in daily fresh air and exercise, as well as time for quiet contemplation, conversation with friends, and observation of the passing world. This is a priceless experience, even if it feels like a chore right now.

- Copy the school system and implement daily recesses at home. Insist on 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon. Inevitably these will get stretched as the kids get into games and the pushback will cease.

- Set rules. My kids have to play outside for half an hour when they get home from school. That take precedence over homework, household chores, and reading time. Often I go out, too, to do yard work.

- Create outdoor-to-indoor ratios. Perhaps kids can bank screen time by playing outside, e.g. an hour of outdoor play for a half-hour of Netflix.

- Establish a family tradition of being active outdoors every weekend. Go biking or hiking. Go swimming or skating. Tackle something new like skiing or snowshoeing. Take turns choosing an activity to keep kids interested and invested. Don't let a single day go by without spending some time outdoors.

- Minimize the number of extracurricular activities in your child's life. This will free up hours for #BEtime, a.k.a. time spent in unstructured free play. (Read: Why your kid needs time just to be)

- Give them chores. Middle-school-aged kids may not be so inclined to 'play' outside like younger siblings are, but keep them out there by giving them jobs, e.g. shoveling snow, cutting grass, raking leaves, gardening, etc.

- Get rid of the screens. Life is much easier if there are no iPads to tantalize kids. (I don't own one for this very reason.) Simply remove them from the household and you'll be amazed at the reduction in arguments and the increase in time spent outdoors because there's nothing better to do!

However you choose to approach it, know that time invested in the outdoors is not lost time; it builds your child's confidence, fills them with great memories, improves their mental and physical health, and sets them up for success in ways that formal lessons never can. If you're in doubt, pick up a copy of Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods, and let your eyes be opened to nature's powerful effects.