Extreme heat in the Mountain West and Northwest, choking wildfires in California, flooding downpours in Detroit and along the Gulf Coast: June put on a dramatic display of climate chaos, and July has brought another round of heat waves and hurricanes. While these harsh conditions affect everyone, they also drive children indoors, where they are less active and more susceptible to the pull of screen time.
Take, for instance, June’s heat dome over the Pacific Northwest, which experts say was almost certainly driven by climate change. Portland canceled summer school and closed some pools amid record temperatures. Jacksonville, Fla., shut down all camps and pools in advance of Hurricane Elsa, the earliest “E”-named storm on record. The heat has forced some summer camps to implement indoor hours during the sun’s most intense period. Beaches like those in North Carolina’s Outer Banks are being reshaped by sea level rise, some disappearing or becoming inaccessible as the ocean reclaims low-lying roads. Wildfires — which are now starting earlier in the year and burning larger swaths of land — shutter recreation areas and create moats of smoke and ash between children and nature.
The consequences are doubly painful as kids try to process and shake off the effects of remote learning amid the pandemic. As one California mother told the Guardian about her sons last September, during wildfire season: “They’re definitely acting out. Even with little things that wouldn’t normally upset them. It’s hard to be stuck inside the house.”
Playing in nature is essential to children’s development; how could it be otherwise, considering human history and evolution? Research suggests that access to outdoor green space improves kids’ physical health, social interactions and imaginative problem-solving, as well as neighborhood cohesion and parental stress levels, among other things. But access to nature — nonexistent for some in urban areas — was already shrinking before this summer’s climate chaos arrived like a supercharger. In 2005, journalist Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his book “Last Child in the Woods.” Louv has written that increases in screen use plus parental discomfort with unstructured and lightly supervised play are causing “a narrowing of the senses, greater rates of depression and myopia among children.”
Among major U.S. cities, heat waves are starting earlier in the year and ending later. Between the 2000s and 2010s, heat wave seasons grew nearly a month longer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and now last nearly two months longer than they did in the 1960s. While children have always lived in hot places, some famously sweltering locations are getting even less hospitable for outdoor activity. In the past decade, annual heat-related deaths in Arizona have doubled, while Phoenix’s heat wave season has grown days longer. As University of Arizona geoscience professor Joellen Russell told the New Yorker, parents can’t leave kids outside for the entire day anymore. “I did that,” she said, recalling a time last year when she sent her 10-year-old out biking, “and my baby came home with heatstroke.”
This is not, then, a question of children merely learning to handle new conditions but one of wrestling with a planet where summer days are often dangerous. Because they breathe at a much higher rate and can lose fluids more quickly than adults, young children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution and extreme heat. Toughing it out is not a healthy option; as the Lancet medical journal stated plainly in a 2019 report on health and the climate, “Children are among the worst affected by climate change.”
The harsh reality is that we are still riding the milder part of the warming curve. Summers are poised to get far worse in the coming decades. A 2019 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that by mid-century (2036-2065) in the United States, “the average number of days per year with a heat index above 100°F will more than double, while the number of days per year above 105°F will quadruple.” Even cooler Northern cities are imperiled: For instance, while Boston has historically experienced only 11 days a year with a heat index above 90 degrees, the report concluded that by mid-century it can expect between 30 and 40 such scorchers.
The decaying of outdoor play poses a philosophical concern as well as a practical one. As the writer Gracy Olmstead puts it, “Caregiving for the land and caregiving for human bodies both represent a fight for — and a reverence for — life.” The implicit messages our children receive about our relationship with nature influence their mental models of how the world works and what to value. Being told to “go outside and play” is radically anti-consumerist. All one needs to enjoy the outdoors is sunscreen, imagination and a pair of shoes — and the shoes are often optional. Being stuck indoors, with its lure of screen time, casts a sad shadow on childhood and shapes desires that will persist into adulthood.
Like so many ills, this kneecapping of childhood hits children of color and children from lower-income backgrounds harder than their peers. (Globally, children in poorer parts of the world are also disproportionately affected by climate change, with many facing existential threats.) According to the conservation group American Forests, “A map of tree cover in America’s cities is too often a map of income and race . . . because trees often are sparse in low-income neighborhoods and some neighborhoods of color.” Tree canopy, of course, equals shade, and a lack of shade creates oppressive heat islands inhospitable to play. Similarly, there is a strong correlation between affluence and access to a high-quality park within a short walk.
Sadly, the link between children’s well-being and the climate they will inherit has not motivated the political will to decarbonize at the pace experts say is needed. Perhaps the damage to childhood itself, here and now, will capture parents’ and policymakers’ attention. Along with reducing emissions, there is frequent talk of adapting cities and coastlines to foster climate resilience through actions like building seawalls or improving stormwater infrastructure; a similar conversation could begin around creating a climate-resilient childhood. Addressing issues like shade and park equity, and reshaping communities so that kids have a variety of spaces to freely play and explore (beyond fenced-in playgrounds), may need to move far higher on the priority list.
Childhood should be a sacred time for making meaning, for having the space to build bonds with others and with the dirt, for lying on the grass and gazing at the clouds and wondering about everything or nothing. This generation needs that time more than ever. It would be an enduring shame if we let shortsighted inaction snatch childhood from the children.