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Are Children Spending Enough Time Outdoors?

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Study: only 51 percent of children went outside to walk or play once a day with either parent…

By Greg Seaman, Posted Apr 13, 2012

Kids Playing Outside “In my 40+ years of observing families, the single biggest change I have seen is that children are not outside playing like they used to,” said Nell Trayhill, a retired family therapist from South Carolina.

Standing behind me on line at an airport ticket counter last month, Mrs. Trayhill seemed happy to have my ear. Our conversation was sparked by our shared observation of a group of youngsters moving through the airport, each of them with expressionless faces pressed into their smartphones.

“When driving to town, I pass empty fields where children used to play ball till dark every night in summer…”

“When driving to town, I pass empty fields where children used to play ball till dark every night in summer. Where are the packs of kids who used to play pick-up basketball or touch football? I don’t even see children riding bicycles much anymore,” she said. “When I was a child,” the 73 year-old retiree noted, “the outdoors was something we all had in common. We couldn’t wait to get home from school and get outside to play.”

As we parted ways I mused at how I was indeed getting old. Gabbing away with a retiree about the state of children today just seemed like such ‘oldster’ talk. But Mrs. Trayhill wasn’t just rambling to pass the time. Speaking from years of experience, she could see troubling implications for children and families in the decline of outdoor play.

And according to the latest research, her observations were spot on. With most homes today having two working parents, it’s harder for moms and dads to find time to take children outdoors for play. And with family purse strings tightened due to a weak economy, less money is available for day care and other structured outdoor play activities for children.

According to a new study published in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, parents just aren’t taking their kids outdoors to participate in physical activities. In interviews with almost 9,000 parents, researchers discovered that only 51 percent of children went outside to walk or play once a day with either parent.

In interviews with almost 9,000 parents, researchers discovered that only 51 percent of children went outside to walk or play once a day with either parent.

Forty-four percent of moms and 24 percent of dads said they had parent-child outdoor playtime each day.

“It does make sense that for many parents, especially for parents who work outside the home… it’s not so easy to have outdoor playtime with your children every day,” said Dr. Pooja Tandon, a pediatrician at the University of Washington in Seattle, who worked on the new study.

Tandon and her colleagues did find that kids with a few regular playmates were more likely to get daily time outside. That could be because parents take turns bringing a few kids to the park at a time, Tandon said — a good strategy for time-pressed parents with friends who live nearby.

One big difference, however, was within different racial groups. Asian mothers were 49 percent less likely than white mothers to take their children out, followed by 41 percent of black mothers and 20 percent of Hispanic mothers.

Guidelines from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education suggest that kids get at least an hour of physical activity per day for long-term health benefits, like helping to ward off childhood obesity and some kinds of cancer, as well as help improve their psychological well-being. Preschoolers should also get a few hours of unstructured outdoor playtime each day, according to the recommendations.

Another factor in keeping children indoors is the profusion of computer games, social networking devices and electronic distractions which can hold a child’s interest. Children are not as bored staying indoors as they might have been in the past, and so motivation to go outdoors is lessened.

In our community a few years ago, residents spent considerable time and money planning an outdoor ‘adventure’ playground to encourage children to learn outdoor skills that would make them more confident in natural settings and stimulate their urge to explore. The features included a 100’ zip line, a ropes course for accessing difficult terrain, a high-wire traverse line to build confidence and balance skills, a climbing wall and other fun instructive challenges.

Today, the adventure playground is idle behind locked gates. For insurance purposes, children were required to have a parent present to supervise the activities, but not enough parents came forward to support the program. The best of intentions and generous donations were stymied by parents who just didn’t have the time to spare.

More so today than in the past, parents need to weigh the benefits of job versus family time, and remember that time spent with children is the healthiest investment of all.

Parenting has always been a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, young parents are pressed to develop their careers to provide a regular income, while at the same their young children’s precious years are fleeting. More so today than in the past, parents need to weigh the benefits of job versus family time, and remember that time spent with children is the healthiest investment of all.


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  • I stopped working in order to have more time to spend with my kids, and I think it made a huge difference.  When they were younger, I would take them out every single day, and when they were old enough, I let them go out and explore.  If they needed me, I was at home, so they could come and go as they liked.  We live in a relatively quiet, safe area, so I didn’t worry if they were out on their own.  Today’s society is too rush rush, and too much emphasis is put on career advancement, in detriment to family life.  Most parents can’t or don’t want to choose between their families and their jobs, so they try to juggle both, and I think kids are paying for it.  Maybe it’s time to take a look at slow living…

    • Great comment. I’d day your children are very fortunate!

  • I’d say we have to make our kids go outside! With the X Box, iTouch and cell phones they forget how to go knock on someone’s door and  ask them to come out and play. We have a creek and woods in our backyard – I have “electronics free” days and the kids migrate to the woods and get muddy and chase frogs – I love it!

  • I allow my kids to play outside every afternoon because it is summer vacation and to
    avoid them from playing too much games in the internet. Playing outside with their playmate is much better for them as a child growing up. They learned how to deal with other children.
    And playing outside helps them to strengten their immune system  by running and jumping.
    Let them play.

  • When I was a kid, during the warmer months of the year, all I did was play outside. I fear that children in this era are too distracted by video games, netflix, computers and other handheld devices. People of all ages, really, are too heavily affected by the “always-connected” syndrome. Kids need to be outside, they need it for more reasons than just to enjoy the outdoors too. They gain exposure to necessary allergens and insects that help them to build their immune systems. It’s also good for exercise, which is also a growing concern with childhood obesity rates. Good post, and thanks for sharing!

  • It is vital for a kid to spend more time outside the house than playing x-box! I have a nephew who plays video games for hours! That’s not so good for him and I always try to get him outside and play some basketball or do something more productive. Thanks for sharing,


  • raj

    In this Global village we can’t expect to work nearby home only. Many parents have to work even outside of the country. So they can’t even go out for playing with children till months.
    Secondly busy life of this time made it hard to get in touch with nature.

    I am agree with you totally. Its need for parents if possible they should walk out with children.

  • amazingpenny

    Growing up sure ain’t what it used to be. I can’t get my kids off the electronics. When I grew up electronics was just coming out! It’s so irritating!

  • Jennifer Heise

    I always wonder if our socially-enforced fears of letting our children outside unsupervised plays into it. When I was a kid, 4 and 5 year olds played outside routinely, and were taught how to be safe outside (or fenced in!); nowadays people are afraid to let 10 year olds play outside without constant supervision.

    • Good point. So much information has become available to us with our modern devices and the internet that I think we have more fears about dangers to children than we did a generation ago.

  • I read the post. Well,my answer for the title is, these days children are spending very little time outdoors. One main reason is the popularity and advancement in technology- TV and Internet. When they get all the fun indoors most children don’t prefer going out. 

  • ninjatraylor

    i read the post and i remember my childhood days. That time was really different , my parents really give extra time and care for us. we were use to with outdoor games daily evening time.But now we all and our kids both are involved most of time with tv,ipad internet or some other technology.

  • Vitalik

    Unfortunately this is a problem today. Many of those who are now parents had a poor childhood. And they do not want this for their children. Seek the welfare to their children, they forget what their children actually need. And all the children need our attention.

  • Shelly DiPhillipo

    It cannot be a coincidence that the childhood obesity rate went through the roof in America about the same time as video games, social networking and texting became all the rage. I’m 45 and 35+ years ago when I was a kid and there was none of that stuff, we spent all our free time outside and it was not very common to see overweight kids. I am a single mom and a full-time student, but I still manage to take my 5 yr. old outside for a few hours each day. It comes down to a choice, living a healthy lifestyle with your children, and spending as much time with them as you can because the time goes by so quickly and before you know it they’re grown up and gone.

    • Well said, Shelly. I agree entirely. Our modern technology has lots to offer, but should not come at the expense of healthy childhood activity.

  • Jay

    This whole article missed the fact that the ONLY reason my kids aren’t outside is the busy body next door will be calling Children’s Aid on me. Parents who let their kids play at the park are arrested for negligence.

    The only thing we have to blame is the safety hysteria that says a kid can’t play without adult supervision — even though I am certain that 73 year old you were talking to played ball in that field without a parent volunteer there to supervise.

    Don’t blame parents. Blame the culture of fear.

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