As the weather turns warmer and the days are longer, many parents are looking forward to spending more quality time with the family. A great place to start is by taking your kids outdoors — a lot. As the parent of a 6-year old and a 10-month-old, I think a lot about how our family can provide experiences that help them reach their potential. As the head of the National Wildlife Federation, I am also focused on where children spend their time, and how it impacts their lives.
Here is a sobering statistic: The average American child spends five to eight hours a day in front of a digital screen, often at the expense of unstructured play in nature. The good news is departing from this trend is easier than you think, and quality outside time can fit into even the busiest of schedules. It is worth the effort; the benefits go beyond a little time spent in the fresh air.
Over the past few decades, children’s relationship with the great outdoors and nature has changed dramatically. Since the 1990s researchers have noticed a shift in how children spend their free time. The days of the free-range childhood, where kids spend hours outside playing in local parks, building forts, fording streams and climbing trees, have been mostly replaced by video games, television watching and organized activities such as sports and clubs. We have traded green time for screen time — and it has had an impact on kids’ well-being and development. Our approach to raising children has changed as well, as parents who allowed kids to play largely unsupervised from dawn to the dinner bell have yielded to “helicopter parents” who are afraid to allow their children to roam free, because of perceived safety concerns.
So if childhood has changed, why is it still important for kids to spend time in nature? Here are a few of the benefits:
- Better school performance. Time spent in nature and increased fitness improve cognitive function.
- More creativity. Outdoor play uses and nurtures the imagination.
- Much higher levels of fitness. Kids are more active when they are outdoors.
- More friends. Children who organize their own games and participate in unstructured group activities are less solitary and learn to interact with their peers.
- Less depression and hyperactivity. Time in nature is soothing, improves mood and reduces stress. It can also increase kids’ attention span, because things move at a slower pace than they do on the screen.
- Stronger bones. Exposure to natural light helps prevent vitamin D deficiency, making outdoorsy children less vulnerable to bone problems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health issues.
- Improved eyesight. Time spent outdoors can help combat increasing diagnoses of nearsightedness.
- Better sleep. Exposure to natural light, and lots of physical activity, help reset a child’s natural sleep rhythms.
- A longer life span and healthier adult life. Active kids are more likely to grow into active adults.
And the best part, all of these benefits — especially those related to health and well-being — also apply to the adults spending more time with their children outdoors.
Kids who play more outdoors have fuller and more wholesome lives. Often, when they go outdoors they transform. I love watching my older daughter’s smile grow as her senses awake to the sight of birds and butterflies, the smell of flowers and trees and the sounds of water rushing or leaves rustling. Importantly, she gets a vital break from her intense indoor, too often digitized and highly regimented lifestyle.
Here are the NWF’s top tips for helping children and families reap the benefits of spending time outdoors.
- Explore wildlife with Ranger Rick — From colorful birds to playful squirrels, wildlife holds a special fascination for children of all ages. Taking time to learn about and explore local wildlife with the children in your life is a great way to get kids engaged with the natural world and spending time outside. The National Wildlife Federation’s outdoor ambassador Ranger Rick and his friends provide countless ideas for family outdoor adventures at rangerrick.com.
- Commit to a green hour — Whenever possible, set aside an hour of nature play time for kids each day. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control agree an hour of free play and moderate activity daily is a prescription for lasting health. Increasing a child’s time in nature and the outdoors does not have to be a heavy burden for parents and caregivers; a quick stop at a local park on the way home from school, fishing in a local stream, or an impromptu picnic outside all count. More information is available at: nwf.org/greenhour.
- Garden for wildlife in your backyard — Every family, whether they have a windowsill in an apartment or a yard, can take small actions that make a big impact for children and wildlife. Planting native plants and providing wildlife with food, water, shelter and places to raise their young can transform any space into a bustling wildlife destination and help kids cultivate a love of nature: nwf.org/Garden-for-Wildlife.
At a time when parenting can seem fraught with complexities, one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our children is simply opening the door and stepping outside.
Collin O’Mara is the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation and a father of two. Find him on Twitter @Collin_OMara.