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Kids Spend More Time in Front of Screens Than Outdoors

Friday, September 06, 2019 3:13 PM | Erin Scott

Written by: K. Airy 

During the 80s and 90s, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a kid that wasn’t running around outside playing in the streets or at local parks. However, nowadays things are a lot different.

The development of mobile devices and other gadgets have ensured that the average American child spends five to eight hours a day in front of a screen. Popular games like Fortnite have children spending more of their lives indoors in front of a screen, rather than exploring outside. The detrimental effects of screen time have been demonstrated in numerous research studies, but as a parent and educator, you can break the cycle and encourage healthy habits, like spending time outdoors, from an early age. Trading screen time for green time has many psychological and developmental benefits for today’s children.

The long-term effects of screen time are eye opening. In a study being conducted by the National Institute of Health (NSI), 11,000 kids between the ages of 9 and 10 were monitored for 10 years and some of the preliminary results are intriguing. One of the most significant finds by the study director, Dr Gaya Dowling was that children who reported more than two hours a day of screen time got lower scores on thinking and language tests. As a result, excessive screen time can have a negative effect on children's academic performance. Other detrimental effects have also been linked to disrupted sleep and increased obesity. So, what are the benefits of letting children play outside?

Whether it’s summer or winter, the benefits of going outside are both physical and mental. Monica Wiedel-Lubinksi notes how vitamin D from the sun is important for boosting the immune system and elevating mood. This becomes relevant for child development in the form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD occurs during the winter months where certain regions may see little sunshine, and can lead to depression and other mood disorders.

Additionally, our natural instinct, known as biophilia, is a bond we share with all creatures and plants and has led researchers to believe that spending time in nature can improve mental health and promote healing. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that at a children’s hospital in California with a healing garden had a positive effect on 85% of patients. Children reported better overall mental wellbeing after spending just five minutes in the garden.

Studies have also demonstrated positive effects in learning and education, as well as mental health benefits,  as a result of being outdoors. A study conducted at the University of Stavanger in Norway on the effects of the outdoor learning found that students who participated in an outdoor education program reported significantly more intrinsic motivation to learn and felt more competent. Additionally, stress levels were shown to be lower among students who spent one day a week learning outdoors, compared to those who spent the entire week studying indoors. This is partly because outdoor environments offer a unique mental stimulus that captures a child’s attention. The outdoors also presents opportunities to exceed personal limits, like climbing a tree. Risky play also promotes important skills related to persistence, self-knowledge and problem-solving. 

Maryville University indicated how increasing research in psychology and education draws correlations to improved learning and success. The message is clear: take kids out on a regular basis. Just half an hour a day is enough to catch kids' interest in learning and will have numerous other positive psychological and physiological effects.

So how do we find ways to get kids outside in nature while not completely cutting them off from technology? The answer is at home.

Parents can limit screen time and teach kids healthy habits early on by spending time outside as a family and keeping children’s outdoor time unstructured. Simple activities like playing in the park going out for a bike ride or having a picnic in your backyard, are enough to get children interested and curious about the outdoors. Day trips and camping vacations are a great way to have your children disconnect from technology temporarily and experience what nature has to offer.

Children are naturally inquisitive and nature provides endless stimuli for them to ask questions and learn. Encourage children to find the answer themselves by asking engaging, open-ended questions. This way they will develop an authentic relationship with nature through their own exploration and experiences.

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