"American kids are out of shape, tuned out and stressed out because they’re missing something essential to their health and development, unstructured time playing outdoors."
-- From the report, Whole Child: Developing Mind, Body, and Spirit through Outdoor Play
We've heard it time and time again that our kids need outdoor play in order to stay healthy. But with each passing year, our kids spend less and less time outdoors and more and more time indoors and online. I know, I know ... this is happening to other people's kids, right? Well, as a mom, even a green mom who cares deeply about connecting my kids to nature, I know how easy it is for this disconnect to the outdoors to happen in my own backyard.

When school is in full swing, it is challenging to make sure my daughters have enough time outside. They have little to no recess during their school day, and when they get home they fall into a frenzy of homework and evening activities (ballet, scouts, soccer,) followed by dinner, possibly more homework and bed. When they do have a few free moments, they respond to my suggestion to "go outside and play," with complaints that it's too hot/cold/buggy outside or that they are too tired/hungry/busy at the moment.

It would be easy to leave it at that and get on with my busy evening, but I don't let it go. Because I know that outdoor play ... particularly unstructured outdoor play where my girls can simply play in the dirt or follow the flight of a butterfly is good for them: mind, body and soul.

And now a new report from the National Wildlife Federation called Whole Child: Developing Mind, Body, and Spirit through Outdoor Play confirms my belief. The report details the significant connections between the decline in outdoor play and the decline in children's mental and physical health. And lest you think this decline is not really happening, here is one of the more shocking statistics from the report:

"While contemporary parents spent their free time as kids exploring and playing in nature, their children devote only four to seven minutes a day to unstructured outdoor play like climbing trees, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk, taking a nature walk or playing a game of catch. Yet, kids spend more than seven hours each day in front of electronic media."

In Whole Child, the NWF argues that this detachment from nature and outdoor play is much more troubling than a simple loss of innocence. It is a serious public health issue that all Americans need to care about. From their report:

"Growing up “inside the box” — always in a room, four walls and a ceiling — affects the whole child, but impacts to children’s bodies are perhaps the most dramatic and urgent. Children raised indoors are at risk for serious health problems, and it’s not a matter of when these problems will arrive; they’re already here in the form of obesity, vision problems, vitamin D deficiency, and diabetes."
According to Acting Deputy Surgeon General David Rutstein, lack of outdoor time is a driving force behind the rising childhood obesity epidemic. “Overweight and obese adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming obese adults,” Rutstein said. “If this problem is not addressed, we will leave our children a legacy of shorter life spans for the first time in history."

Reducing obesity is just one of the major health benefits of daily outdoor play. According to Whole Child, outdoor play reduces a child's risk of developing other serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, vitamin D deficiency, high cholesterol, sleep disorders and high blood pressure.

There are also some rather surprising health benefits of outdoor play listed in the report. For instance:

  • 78 percent of educators say students who spend regular time in unstructured outdoor play are better able to concentrate, and 75 percent feel students who spend regular time outdoors are more creative and better problem solvers.
  • Several studies reveal kids who get outdoor time suffer less nearsightedness, reducing their need for eyeglasses.
  • Children who spend time outdoors learn to work as a team and are better problems solvers as adults. They score higher on assessments of cognitive ability and standardized tests.
  • A 2009 study at the University of Rochester reveals that being in, or even looking at, nature also makes human beings behave more human — it makes you nicer!
So, how do I get my kids to spend more time outdoors? Whole Child offers a toolbox of ideas on getting kids outdoors for parents, like me, and also for teachers, health care providers, and legislators. Turns out, one of the best ways to get my kids unplugged and outdoors is to unplug myself and get out the door.

Of course, I'll be back later. But for now ... off I go!

How and why to get kids outdoors
New report from the National Wildlife Federation links the decline in outdoor play with the decline in kids' health.