The benefits of spending time outdoors are pretty clear:
- Lower rates of obesity, heart disease and depression
- Improved focus
- Decreased stress
And yet, across the nation, kids are spending less time outside. Compared to their parents, today’s children get outdoors just half as often. Screen time—about seven hours a day—along with school, activities and the changing nature of communities have conspired to keep our kids indoors.
The loss, experts say, is affecting families in negative ways.
“Much of society no longer sees independent imaginary play and time spent in the natural world as ‘enrichment,’” says Richard Louv, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of “Last Child in the Woods.” “Technology now dominates almost all aspect of our lives. Technology is not, in itself, the enemy, but our lack of balance is deadly. The pandemic of inactivity is one result.”
A New Kind of Disorder
Louv calls this problem “nature-deficit disorder.” He noticed its results in 1990 while researching his first book, “Childhood’s Future.”
“Even then, parents and others were reporting a divide between the young and the natural world, and the social, spiritual, mental, and environmental implications of this change,” Louv says. “At that time, there was little research about the divide or the benefits of nature to human growth.”
Science now backs up much of what Louv suspected almost 30 years ago: Exposure to nature can cut stress levels by almost a third. Children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to be overweight. Researchers also have found that this isn’t just about being active—it’s about being active outdoors.
“Outdoor exercise helps mental and physical well-being more than indoor activity,” says Diane Wood, president of National Environmental Education Foundation. “Even a 20-minute walk in nature can help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder concentrate better, and there’s enough evidence to show that when any child is given enough unstructured time outdoors, they focus better, are more receptive to learning and are more skilled in social interactions.”
So what’s holding families—and children—back from returning to outside time? Part of the responsibility lies with today’s parents and guardians, who often are less familiar with the natural world than the generations before them.
“They may not know about nature and feel somehow they need to be experts,” Wood says. “But parents really just need to share their interest, pointing out new shapes, colors and textures. Kids can simply lead nature finding if the adults they are with are focused and engaged—and off their cell phones.”
Luckily, reconnecting kids with the great outdoors doesn’t have to be organized, led by experts or costly. All that’s needed, Louv and Wood say, is intention and effort.
“Kids are naturally curious and will gravitate to stimulation of the senses that nature offers, but it is our responsibility to open the door to the natural world and let them step through,” Wood says.
The first step is the easiest: Just get your kids outside—no structure needed. Learning, discovering and exploring will happen on their own.
“The second step is to give them good experiences with nature that will make them want to go out and explore more on their own, be it a trip to a national park or just naming animals, bugs and plants around the neighborhood,” Wood says. “Parents, friends and family are the most influential for youth participation in outdoor activities. If you set an example and take the first step, your children will follow.”
Louv says he has noticed a recent return to outside time in schools and state legislatures, businesses and government—as well as family nature clubs and a re-emphasis on recess.
“We can spend more time with children in nature. This is quite a challenge, one that emphasizes the value of exploring nearby opportunities,” Louv says. “Make getting outside a natural and planned act. We can make natural places in and around our homes, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, cities and suburbs, so that, even in inner cities, our children grow up in nature—not with it, but in it.”
Bonding also is a priceless benefit of outdoor activity.
“Children come back from their adventures with something to talk about with their parents or guardians,” Wood says. “Sharing sudden discoveries with your children builds stronger communication skills and allows parents to get more engaged, which supports kids’ good experiences and builds new bonds for a lifetime.”
10 Ideas to Get Outside
Help your children get curious about nature by regularly spending time outdoors. The 5-2-1-0 program’s aim is to reduce childhood obesity. It encourages five servings of fruits and veggies, less than two hours of screen time, one hour of outside physical activity and zero servings of sugary drinks. Here are some ideas to get your family moving outside:
Find events in your favorite state or local park.
Create a nature scavenger hunt. Google “nature scavenger hunt” for free PDFs.
Use a mobile app or check out books from your library to learn about plants, birds or other animals.
Explore a park or trail.
Create a nature notebook. Have your child sit, look and listen outside for 10 minutes each day, and record their observations.
Give budding photographers a chance to capture nature with a camera. Then, print a low cost album with their favorite shots.
Learn to fish with the Michigan DNR.
Hang a bird feeder, and note the varieties that visit. Change the food to see if different birds come.
Get a taste of Michigan’s great outdoors in the heart of the Motor City. Find out more at Detroit's Outdoor Adventure.
Plant a container garden or search for a community garden plot.