My Kids Don’t Know How To Play Outside!

Posted August 31st, 2012 by Nanette Heffernan. Comments (2).

Over the summer I realized my kids don’t know how to REALLY play outside. Ridiculous? “What kid doesn’t know how to play outside?” you say. Most kids from 4th or 5th grade on, I’d argue. I’m not talking about swimming, organized sports, or other myriad rule based games. I’m talking about the type of play we did when our parents said, “Go outside and play.” Riding bikes in the street, building a tree house on an abandoned lot, hunting for fairies in the field grass, catching frogs and making them a habitat. I’m talking about playing with your imagination. So what are they doing if they’re not playing outside? According to Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, the average child consumes 6 hours of screen time daily. OK, that’s astonishing, but should we even care that kids are growing up on screens these days? Apparently we should care. A lot.

America has now officially produced its first generation of kids raised on screens. They’re in their early twenties and many of them are struggling with depression, stress, and keeping a job. They’re having difficulty in higher education systems because they don’t have the basic life experiences we take for granted. But mostly, they are disappointed with life in general.

Initially, these statistics shocked me. How could the average kid end up with 6 hours of screen time a day? Actually it’s not that difficult when you think about all of the opportunities for children (and adults) to be in front of a screen. TV and video games are the obvious babysitters but what about all of the computer learning games at home and school, and the Ipad/touch/phone, or the in car TV consoles, just to name a few. These are all systems that only engage two of our senses—sight and hearing—but when you are outside you engage all of your senses thereby developing and stimulating different parts of your brain.

OK, back to my kids. At first I didn’t believe it. Not MY kids, right? So I tested them. The 5th graders were playing chess. Inside. Not a bad choice but I wanted to conduct my experiment so I told them they needed to play outside for one hour. “Why? What were we doing wrong?” they wanted to know. Reluctantly, they played one game of four square and came back. When I informed them it had only been fifteen minutes, they left, annoyed, and played basketball for a bit, after which, they were quite upset when I wouldn’t let them back in the house. “That must have been an hour by now!” they insisted. They spent the remainder of their sixty minutes on the deck chairs talking about what they were going to do when the were allowed back inside. I had similar experiences with my other kids. That was the day I shut off my computer screen, cleared my to do list and vowed to reteach my kids how to play outside. Their future happiness depended on it!

It’s not that we sat in front of the TV for six hours a day, we just didn’t have much unorganized outside play. When I thought about why, I realized I wasn’t much different from the “average parent”. The reasons kids are indoors more today primarily has to do with fear. Fear of abduction, fear of being hit by a car, fear of sunburns, poison oak, ticks, snakes, and on, and on, and on. Thirty years ago parents sent their kids outside to get them out of their hair, today we give them a screen to keep them quiet. Frankly, it’s more work, as a parent, to turn off the screens. I know because I did it.

It’s been two months and our new routine includes exploring the open space in our neighborhood, riding bikes after dinner, building a tree house in the empty lot at the end of our street, catching bugs, pressing wildflowers, Kick-The-Can, and the best game of all…survivor, complete with walkie-talkies, pocket knives, and camouflage face paint. Some of these things we do together, but most they do completely on their own. It took a month, until they stopped complaining about the new limits on screen time, and I can honestly say I already see a big difference in their attitudes. They’re much calmer. Much more talkative. Much happier.

2 Responses to “My Kids Don’t Know How To Play Outside!”

  1. Nanette Heffernan

    Here’s an article on upswing of parents encouraging their kids to play in the street. Awesome!

  2. sharon

    My kids played outside and play outside today. They are 21 and 23 today. They had to really search to find kids to play outside, to go off into the woods with their bikes and saws – to create jumps and things like that. We told them they couldn’t be inside. They didn’t have portable screens then.

    My neighbor is building a half basketball court in his backyard himself. Why? So the kids will all want to play in his backyard – outside.
    My other neighbor’s lawn is a mess but he has the hockey nets set up in the street. Guess where all the kids are?

    Outside is better than inside and no screens is better than with screens.

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