Children are increasingly spending time indoors engaged with various forms of electronic devices: phones, computers, tablets, televisions, and gaming consoles. Parents and educators are often concerned that too much screen time is damaging to children. One study suggests that children can spend an average of seven hours per day in front of screens. While not all screen time is created equal, there are benefits to using media in educational settings, for example, there is no argument that children on the whole spend too much time engaged with electronic devices to be healthy.
What’s the solution? Get kids outdoors to improve their mental and physical health.
There is significant data indicating that time spent outdoors, whether in play, outdoor education or recreation, or even gardening, can have a real and positive impact on mental and physical well-being. Outdoor experiences included as adjuncts to classroom learning improve classroom performance. These types of experiences can also improve communication and social cues. Parks with green spaces and urban hiking areas promote creativity through play. Gardening teaches children about the food cycle and nutrition, provides important life skills, and creates opportunities for children to learn competence, resilience, and community building.
How can busy parents, who may themselves suffer from too much screen time, help kids get outdoors? Here are a few suggestions:
Gardening – Junior Master Gardener programs can be integrated into school curricula or be used at home or in religious youth groups. Children’s gardening programs ignite a passion for good food, provide opportunities for people of all ages to work together, and develop important life skills that can lead to a lifetime of healthful choices. Food produced may be used in home or school settings, canned for use in the off season, and excess donated to local food banks.
Scouts – Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are values-based movements that each have an underpinning in outdoor programming. While certainly not all these groups do – they have science and community service activities among others – scout organizations often own or have access to outdoor properties and professionals that children would not have an opportunity to experience in other ways. Outdoor programs have a deep tradition within scouting and are offered in age-appropriate ways for the youngest and oldest scouts.
State and National Parks – State and national parks offer a wide variety of outdoor activities for youth and families. These are not necessarily just hikes or camping, but interactive wildlife activities, archaeological activities, storytelling times, and much more. The park service often coordinates activities with various scout groups too and provides special programming for youth groups from a variety of agencies and organizations. There are also free access days to National Parks that you can find out about online.
Agricultural Groups – Groups like 4H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) teach agriculture skills using project-based activities. 4H is the nation’s largest youth serving organization, providing leadership and skill building opportunities for youth and their communities. FFA is a school-based activity giving students a foundation in agriculture education.
Don’t allow children to trap themselves indoors spending mind-numbing hours watching screens. Take them to the park for unstructured play time. Give them chores that include working outdoors. If you live in a place where those kinds of activities are unsafe or you want your children to develop leadership and communication skills in addition to spending time outdoors, consider any of the organizations listed above or local groups that give children outdoor experiences.
By teaching children about gardening, ecosystems, and wildlife and giving them opportunities to work in a team with others, you will equip them with experiences and skills that will help them live healthier, more well-adjusted lives in the years to come. Outdoor experience often creates resilience – and we can all use much more of that.