The following is transcribed from a recent The Nature of Things broadcast by W. Brooks Paternotte on WYPR. The message—that kids need to play outside and get into some dirt—was so well crafted that it is quoted here for The New Century School community in its entirety.
Remember playing outside until mom called you in for dinner? Me too. I would ride my bike in the twilight and listen to cricket and cicada songs. My sister would be searching the nearby woods with a magnifying glass, in hopes of finding fairies. My brother would be painstakingly making mud pies. Today’s kids, though? I don’t think they’ll have those kinds of memories.
In the last two decades, childhood has overwhelmingly moved indoors. Children are spending half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago. In fact, the average American girl or boy spends an alarmingly low 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day. But, he or she might spend 7 1/2 hours each day in front of an electronic screen. That’s about 53 hours of screen time a week.
This shift toward staying inside profoundly impacts the wellness of our nation’s youngsters. Childhood obesity rates have more than doubled over last 20 years. The United States has become the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world, and pediatric prescriptions for antidepressants have risen exponentially. And yet, in a typical week, only 6% of children ages 9 to 13 play outside on their own.
So what’s a parent to do in the face of such startling statistics? As with many problems, the first step is getting help. You’ve heard that it takes a village to raise a child? Well, environmental educators believe it takes a backyard, a playground, or a park.
Start getting in touch with nature by spending time outdoors with the children you know. It could be as simple as taking a walk through the neighborhood or lifting up a rock to see what’s underneath. Every moment in a child’s life provides an opportunity for discovery—whether it’s seeing tiny turtles emerging from the sand and making their way to the ocean, or watching a spider weave its delicate web. These are experiences that will inspire them. My favorite suggestion for families is to try to grow something together. It could be flowers or vegetables, or even something imaginary. But get kids’ hands in the soil! When they play in dirt, we’re not only allowing them to explore the wonders around them, we’re also exposing them to healthy bacteria, parasites, and viruses that can create a much stronger immune system.
Study show that simply having contact with dirt can significantly improve a child’s mood and reduce their anxiety and stress. In fact, multiple studies have shown that childrens’ stress levels fall dramatically within minutes of seeing green spaces. Even more studies have concluded that outdoor time helps children grow lean and strong, enhances imaginations and attention spans, decreases aggression, and boosts classroom performance. In addition, children who spend time in nature regularly become better stewards of our environment.
Maybe try volunteering for organizations that support wildlife or the outdoors. Or get an amazing dose of vitamin D, which can help protect children from future bone problems, by going camping. You don’t have to go far—Irvine Nature Center recently doubled in size and has out-there-feeling camping experiences that can make even the grumpiest of teenagers nicer and more social. Really! Studies have shown that connection to the natural world can make that big of a difference for all of us!
As a community, I think we can change the nature of childhood for the better—we can put nature back in it! For more ideas, check out Nature Rocks, a program of the Nature Conservancy. it’s an online resource that makes it easy for families to have fun in nature.