Long ago, kids roamed the outdoors in packs, climbing trees, rolling down hills, wading in creeks and spending their evenings catching lightning bugs. Today, kids spend 4-7 minutes playing outside each day. In fact, the decline of the outdoor child is one of the biggest shifts in childhood today.
Of course, we're in the digital age and screens have replaced the sights and sounds of the great outdoors. Cable television, on-demand television, ipads, iphones, laptops, Facebook, and video games engineered to be irresistible to kids have all developed over the past 30 years. Without a doubt, these have been a major factor in the disappearance of outdoor play.
But they're not the only culprits. There is a myriad of reasons why childhood is spent indoors today. Here are a few others that alone are pretty powerful, taken together create a perfect storm leading to the destruction of outdoor play:
1. Parental fears
From strangers to lyme disease and even the sun, parents are flooded by a never-ending list of "threats" to children ready and waiting once they step outside of the safety of their homes. While at one time, children could wander through their neighborhoods with parents comforted by the fact that neighbors knew who they were and were watching out for them. Today, we barely know who lives next door. The good news is that some efforts are underway to overcome neighborhood fears. Play Streets (based in the UK and coming to other world cities)is a simple, effective and low-cost way for children to be able to play out in the streets where they live. As for the threats from nature, think of it this way. Yes, Lyme Disease is a terrible and rampant illness. But precautions can be taken.
2. Overscheduled children
Call it the helicopter parenting or bulldozer parenting, parents today worry that we are not providing our children with enough of an edge to be successful. Most kids today will have a schedule jam-packed with extracurricular activities such as lacrosse, Russian Math, climbing, dance, improv... We've read Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers." We know the 10,000-hour rule. As a result, we frantically try to fill out kids' social card.
3. Reduced recess
Since the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, many schools have struggled to find ways to meet the act's rigorous assessment standards. While some schools have carved out time for more academics by cutting out physical education classes and recess, others have withheld time allotted for physical activity as a punishment for poor classroom behavior, or for extra tutoring time for struggling students. Either way, these myopic approaches are leaving children behind by denying them necessary breaks outdoors.
About 3.5 billion people across the globe live already live in cities. And estimates say that urban population will grow by 2.5 to 3 billion people by 2050. Of course with more people in the same area, green space often suffers. Today, children's access to green play spaces is often more distant and/or more dangerous than it was in the past. To make matters worse, even if kids find urban green spaces, there are often rules against tree climbing or even walking on the grass.
5. Boring playgrounds
Today's playground is a sanitized version of the monkey bars, merry go rounds and seesaws we all had as kids. And kids are showing their distaste for them by not playing on them. Blame the trend of boring playgrounds on lawsuits. It often seems like there is no longer such a thing as a simple accident. If a child is hurt playing outside, then someone is to blame ― and someone can be sued. Luckily, the adventure playground is emerging as an alternative to the boring, albeit “safe,” play areas for kids.