3 Steps to Getting Kids Outdoors

©. K Martinko

We know kids need to spend more time outside, but how does a parent go about making that happen?

Children spend half the amount of time playing outdoors that their parents did. Whereas older generations spent an average of 8.2 hours playing outside when they were young, kids nowadays spend just over four hours a week outside. This is an enormous decrease, driven by a number of factors that include parental fear of traffic and 'stranger danger', the lure of technology in the form of social media and online games, and a wealth of engaging indoor activities.

Being indoors is not necessarily bad, as it can lead kids to develop valuable reading skills, learn musical instruments and languages, and participate in organized sports; but when that indoor time takes over kids' lives and makes outdoor playtime virtually nonexistent, it becomes a serious matter.

An article called 'Are Kids Extinct in the Wild?' suggests a three-part solution to getting kids outside. This includes:

1. Set sensible indoor boundaries
2. Make the outdoors fun again
3. Safely relax

This is a good, simple way of breaking it down and worth reviewing, though we've said it many times on TreeHugger.

Let's look at the first point. Sensible indoor boundaries are a necessity in order to break the frightening social media addictions that parents, educators, and psychologists are beginning to witness in many children and adolescents. The past decade has been a 'Wild West' of technological innovation; children born in the late '90s and early 2000s have been part of an enormous unofficial experiment, the first to grow up in a world where they carry a planet's worth of information in their pockets and are expected to know how to balance it with real life. It's not going well, hence the need for better boundaries.

Parents have a responsibility to set firm limits, using phone and Internet settings, as well as hashing out device contracts with older kids and setting strict rules for younger ones. For example, one could say 'no devices during the school week', 'a 15-minute daily limit on the iPad,' or 'no screen time till you've spent an hour outside.' Once technology is off-limits, kids will seek alternative forms of entertainment, hopefully outdoors.

The second point -- make the outdoors fun again -- is important, too. For years I wished my kids could entertain themselves better outside, but they don't. They often beg me to join them or say they don't know what to do. Until I read Linda Åkeson McGurk's book, There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather, I thought I was doing something wrong; but no, she had the same problem.

I realized then that when kids are small it's really OK to be the driving force behind getting them outside. It takes commitment and stubbornness, but if the parent absolutely insists on taking a child for walks in the forests, visits to the park, arranging outdoor playdates and beachcombing expeditions, then that love for nature will develop organically. But it does take parental initiative, like it or not, especially when those kids are small. Much like teaching them to eat vegetables, and trying over and over again no matter their reaction, getting kids outside on a daily basis must come from the parent.

playing in the forest

© K Martinko -- My kids and I like poking around in the forest near our house, even if we only have a short window of opportunity.

Finally, safely relax is a reminder that many of the dangers parents fret about are quite pointless. The world is safer now than ever; kidnapping is statistically negligible. Traffic is a real concern, but kids age 4 and up (of course, this is a generalization since every kid is different) are smart enough to learn rules about staying off the road. Eliminating all risk, however, should never be the goal. Play is a way for kids "to make mistakes within well-defined parameters," which is far preferable to making those mistakes in real, adult life.

Children have the right to be outside every single day. It will make them happier, healthier, stronger, more focused, more agile, smarter. It will give them a friend, a sense of companionship, a place where they can always go and feel comforted. It will teach them to respect the planet and want to protect it. The absolute best time to initiate this relationship between child and nature is now, when they are young, so why not start today?