Playing outdoors is vital for kids.
DR KATHLEEN Berchelmann, a paediatric hospitalist at BarnesJewish, Missouri Baptist and Progress West hospitals in the United States, sees the most extreme cases of stressed, depressed and anxious kids.
When she inquires about healthy activities in the teens’ lives, almost none mention anything outdoors.
Berchelmann said she notices her most carefree patients have opposite lives. They are covered in ticks after being out catching frogs or have an infected mosquito bite after a camping trip. “They are the ones waiting an hour to see you and are still giggling when you get in the room,” she said.
Children’s time in nature is rapidly diminishing. Today’s youth spend just four to seven minutes outside each day in unstructured outdoor play such as climbing trees, catching bugs or playing tag. Yet, they spend more than seven hours each day in front of a screen.
The question of how this affects a child’s development has become increasingly urgent. In August, the US National Wildlife Federation released a comprehensive report – Whole Child: Developing Mind, Body And Spirit Through Outdoor Play – revealing how the unique benefits of playing outside promote not just physical wellness but also mental.
“It’s not just about loss of innocence, the detachment from all things growing and green. It’s a serious public health issue we all need to care about,”says National Wildlife Foundation education director Kevin Coyle.
Increasing outdoor playtime can help protect children from troubling trends.
Children are losing playtime to homework, sports practices and after-school lessons. When they are free, they are plugged in. At the same time, schools have cut back on recess to boost test scores. Child abductions make parents fearful of letting kids roam.
Dr Garrett Burris, a paediatric neurologist at St Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield, sees many patients with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and emotional disorders. More than other children, he says, those with ADHD and other problems need the mental break that the outdoors provide.
“What is remarkable is that I find that many children don’t go out and play, and they don’t exercise,” Burris said. “It’s too easy to get home and start texting and open up a screen. You don’t have to move. You don’t have to go to a friend’s house.”
The decline in green time is not the cause of these medical conditions, Burris and others say. But increasing outdoor playtime might help protect children from troubling trends:
> About 4.5 million school children (in America) have been diagnosed with ADHD, an increase of 3% each year since 1997. The disorder can impair academic progress and socialisation.
> A survey last year by the American Psychological Association found a third of children ages eight to 17 reported increasing stress levels. Another recent poll of adults moved stress up the ranks to among the top children’s health concerns.
University of Illinois researchers found exposure to natural settings significantly reduced ADHD symptoms such as inattention and impulsivity of children, according to a study published in 2004. A possible reason is that nature helps prevent “attention fatigue” by engaging the mind effortlessly.
The Whole Child report compiles studies showing how outdoor play leads to happier kids: Children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces. Outdoor play teaches kids to collaborate and solve problems. They are more confident, creative and even nicer.
The mounting science is causing doctors and parents to take notice.
Michele Cleveland, 41, of St Charles, has an 11-year-old son diagnosed with ADHD. She recently learned more about the benefits of outdoor play in an effort to reduce her son’s medication, which suppresses his appetite, she said. But daily play is a challenge.
Afternoons are filled with homework, sports practices and Boy Scouts for him and his seven-year-old brother. He has fewer playmates because he struggles to fit in. Cleveland said she is fearful to let her boys play outside alone, so they get on the computer or watch TV while she finishes chores or cooks dinner.
“I need to re-prioritise so I can give kids that time,” she said. “The laundry is going to be there no matter what.”
The US National Wildlife Federation’s physician-reviewed Whole Child report includes recommendations for parents and doctors to get kids playing outside: Caregivers > Be a role model. Show them how to unplug from media and plug into nature.
> Enlist friends and neighbours for outdoor play groups.
> Join kids for fun in the backyard, park, garden or nature trail. Healthcare providers > Ask questions about outdoor time and media habits on intake forms and risk assessments. Talk to parents about the link between outdoor time and better health.
> Write a prescription for regular outdoor time.
> Instruct parents to create a nature journal that logs outdoor activities with their kids and the effect it has on their children’s mood.
> Remind parents to limit plugged-in time. – St Louis Post-Dispatch/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services