Is the lack of outdoor play robbing our children's health?

Increasingly our views of the world focus toward whatever electronic device is in front of us.  Television, video games, computers, and cell phones are more often the source of our gaze, instead of the tree or mountain that might be right out our window.  At the same time, the nightly news reports the alarming rise in obesity rates and related diseases among adults and children.  According to author Richard Louv in an U.S. News and World Report interview about his book, Last Child in the Woods, “[a] recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 6.5 hours a day with electronic media” (Voiland par.2).  Spending their time indoors with electronic media, rather than outdoors playing, questioning, and building their knowledge of the world may be one factor that accounts for our increasingly obese and unhealthy children.

Obesity in children is on the rise to such an extent that we may soon make history, but not in a good way.  According to Australian author and RMIT University lecturer Barbara Chancellor in her article Public Spaces for Play, “many studies have shown over recent years, that we are raising a generation of children who will not have the same life-span as their parents, due to diseases associated with obesity” (Chancellor 55-56).  In this technological and research oriented age, it is hard to fathom how this can happen.  More importantly, what can we do to stop this prediction from coming true?

The answer appears to lie in getting children outside.  Louv argues that there are many benefits to spending time outdoors such as “increased self-confidence, better body image, and cognitive benefits” (Voiland par. 6) and that children who spend more time out in nature in “unstructured, imaginative play” (Voiland par. 1) have a better chance of avoiding obesity, as well as mental and physical difficulties (Voiland par. 4).  Just as adults need their share of exercise in order to be physically healthy; running around, playing, and being active outside is the child’s equivalent of physical health.  Additionally, it is well known that exercise increases endorphins in the body, which contribute to feelings of well-being.  Playing outside, instead of gaming inside, allows children to maintain their endorphin levels, contributing to their mental health.  

In writing about playing outdoors, Chancellor joins mental health with social development stating, “the social competencies of negotiating, arguing, interpreting, [and] verbalizing will be enhanced through collaborative play actives where a range of personalities and cultural perspectives are encountered” (Chancellor 56).  Naturally, these are social skills that will benefit any child as he or she grows into adulthood.  Exposing a child to a variety of people and situations can expand their knowledge and tolerance of humanity.  

While few would argue that increasing physical exercise is good for everyone’s health, some might note that the views held by Chancellor and Louv seem limited.  By focusing solely on outdoor activity and play as the solution to a myriad of childhood health problems, they have ignored other important contributing factors such as nutrition and parenting.  For instance, children can play outside all day long but if they eat soda pop, chips, and McDonalds everyday, they are unlikely to be slender and healthy.  Similarly, without parental guidelines and boundaries, a child is more likely to be the neighborhood hellion, rather than the neighborhood collaborator.  

It seems like every week there is a news report or magazine article claiming that obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other disorders are on the rise due to our sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits.  There are an almost equal number of reports concerning similar decreases in children’s health and increases in conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder.  Adults and children alike have less exposure to the wide expanse of nature and an increasingly narrow focus on an electronic world.  Although it may not be the sole solution, Louv and Chancellor remind us that spending time exercising outdoors with nature serves to refresh us and keep us healthy in a way that Wii Fit never can.

by Lucinda Plum

Chancellor, Barbara. “Public Spaces for Play: Creating Natural Playspaces for Children 8-12 Years in Urban Landscapes that Support Free, Imaginative and Creative Play.”  International Journal of the Humanities 5.4 (Nov 2007): 55-58. Humanities International Complete. EBSCO. North Idaho College Molstead Library. 25 April 2009

Voiland, Adam. “The Prescription for Nature Deficit Disorder.” U.S. News and World Report. 10 March 2008: 58. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. North Idaho College Molstead  Library. 23 April 2009

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