How do you raise healthy children in the age of the smart phone and social media? Are our kids living in a prison without walls?
Many parents over a certain age will recall childhood summers of relative freedom. They got up and out as early as possible, adventuring with friends, bicycling around their neighborhoods, and generally having the fields, forests, or neighborhood streets as adult-free play areas.
It isn’t that the 70s and 80s were a particularly idyllic time. And certainly, as studies show, those same kids would have had a lot more household chores to do every week than children have today. But spending the majority of their free time outdoors was a given for most kids growing up two or three decades ago.
That’s in stark contrast to today when people in prison spend more time outside than kids do. Don’t believe it? In the US, inmates of maximum security prisons are guaranteed two hours outdoors per day, but a recent survey throughout 10 countries examining 12,000 parents in with children aged five to 12 found that one-third of kids spend less than 30 minutes outside each day.
A video created by Unilever as part of their “Dirt Is Good” campaign highlights this absurdity. In the video, offenders locked up in Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana discuss what those daily two hours mean to them. “To feel the sun on your face. It’s everything to me,” says one inmate.
“My daily outdoors time is probably the most important part of the day,” another offender agrees.
“Keeps my mind right; keeps my body strong,” adds another.
It’s not hard to see the irony in punishing people by denying them access to something that were they free and younger, they probably wouldn’t be using anyway.
So what has happened in the last couple of decades to bring our free-range kids indoors? Most of us have read the literature that claims parents are a big part of the problem. From hovering “helicopter” parents who are afraid to allow their children roam free because of perceived safety concerns to parents who manage their kids’ lives so that they’re engaging in activities considered most beneficial to their future accomplishments, modern childhood’s similarity to prison life is more fitting than we think—except that the kids’ prison is the cotton-wool kind made from their parents’ love and concern.
On a lesser level, the more general acceptance of tech-themed downtime that involves television watching, video games, social media and—if kids are of toddler age—endless unboxing videos on YouTube, means that without even realizing it we’ve let our kids trade green time for screen time—and to the point where a lot of children are not even sure why they should go outside.
In a survey carried out by the US Nature Conservancy, 80 percent of children claimed their unwillingness to go outside was due to “discomfort,” caused by things such as bugs and the heat, while just under half (49 percent) said they just weren’t interested in spending time in nature.
But here’s the problem. Kids don’t need to be in nature just because fresh air is good for them (although, of course, it is). Outdoor play—discomfort and all—is vital to ALL areas of a child’s development. “Outdoor play can help combat childhood obesity and myopia, it’s important for various sensory issues, and it improves ADHD symptoms,” says Iben Sandahl, a Danish psychotherapist and parenting expert, and the author of The Danish Way of Parenting. “And while many parents may be afraid of letting their children explore outside play on their own because they want to protect their children from getting scraped knees, life itself is about falling down and getting back up. That is resilience,” states Sandahl. “And resilience has been proven to be one of the greatest factors in cultivating more happiness.”
Sandahl notes that in Denmark, parents typically allow their kids a longer leash than those in the US, UK, and many other Western countries. “In Denmark, children can be seen playing outside in freezing, rainy weather, climbing extremely tall trees with no safety net, and wading through mud puddles near fjords,” she says. “The thought of hovering over children to protect them, or correcting every move they make would seem very strange to a Dane. Children are natural explorers and parents’ overly correcting, protective, taking over tasks or barricading any possible dangers, are only hindering the child.”
So how can we, as parents, help our kids break out of their indoor cells and get down and dirty—literally? Sandahl has numerous suggestions, which she regularly displays on her Instagram page @thedanishway. Here she shares four of the most important:
Do as You Want Them to Do
Most parents acknowledge the value of outdoor time for kids in helping them become well-rounded adults. In fact, in the previously mentioned poll conducted by the Nature Conservancy, 82 percent of parents said that spending time in nature was “very important” to their children’s development, second only to reading as a priority.
The problem, as Sandahl sees it, is that parents may think like this, but don’t necessarily act like it. Parents, she says, have to lead by example to encourage kids to believe that being outdoors may have be fun. “In my book, I made a play oath for families to inspire more play, and particularly in nature,” she says. “It definitely helps children love outdoor play way more if they can see and feel that their parents are enjoying beautiful moments together with them.”
Speak Up, then Stand Down
If you’re worried about your child’s safety, teach them the fundamentals of self-safety—and then stand back and let them apply these learnings themselves. “It serves a purpose to explain to a child how to be careful,” says Sandahl. “This is a way to build confidence in children. The key, however, is to stand back and let children find the boundaries by themselves. This is extremely powerful.”
Don’t Be a Superhero
Once your children have gotten used to playing outdoors, allow them to be challenged. This means curbing your instinct to swoop in and save them every time they’re attempting to do something difficult, or they fall or scrape themselves.
“By shielding our children from natural hazards and accidents—by not allowing them to use their imagination and play in nature—we risk having children who will be overly cautious and frightened,” claims Sandahl. The aim is not to rescue our children from all the challenges in life, but, she says, “to teach them how to face them.”
Get to Know Your Neighbors
Our own parents may have felt confident letting us roam out of home because of the social ties they had in the neighborhood. Certainly, the breakdown of community structures, and the fact we often don’t know who lives next door to us let alone have a network of local friends, family, and reliable neighbors, has been noted as one of the reasons parents are more reluctant to let kids go outside unsupervised. Sandahl recommends finding ways to become more involved in your local area. “In communities with a high level of social trust, children spend more time outside.”