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“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.