After-school Special: Keeping Kids Engaged in the Outdoors

School’s in. Summer’s out. The days are getting shorter. Homework routines and after-school activities are getting started. In the busyness of a new school year, one thing that can disappear from a child’s calendar is simple playtime outside.

When today’s parents and grandparents were children, most of them spent their free time playing outdoors. Today’s children, however, often have much less free, or unstructured, time, and spend far less of what they do have outdoors.

A number of organizations have been doing their homework on this issue, and their research increasingly attaches serious risk to “indoor” and “backseat” childhoods. Children in the U.S. currently average more than a full workweek—44.5 hours—in front of a computer, video game, or television screen each week. Changing demographics, traffic patterns, and safety concerns result in more children being driven to and from school and activities instead of walking. Nationwide, according to the Outdoor Foundation, fewer children are participating in outdoor activities each year, and many of those who do hike, bike, swim, and so forth, engage in those activities just once or twice a year. Elementary-school children spent 20 percent more time on homework in 1997 than in 1981. Schools, facing budget constraints and testing requirements, reduce or remove physical education classes and recess from the school day.

Meanwhile, obesity has quadrupled among U.S. children and tripled among adolescents in one generation, and more children are being treated for depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Researchers have known for many years that one of the best predictors of whether a child will maintain a healthy weight is time spent outside. More recent research suggests an even stronger connection between time spent simply playing outdoors and children’s physical and mental well-being. A 2003 study by Cornell University researchers determined that children who have regular access to nature are less likely to be depressed or suffer from behavioral disorders. Studies in the U.S., England, and Europe link “participating in nature” with better problem-solving, self-confidence, cooperation, and test scores. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children spend one hour a day on physical activity. Outdoor experts have extended that recommendation to call for a “green hour” of outdoor play.

Here are some ways to keep children playing outside during the school year:

1. Continue spending time together outdoors as a family. Parents and role models play a crucial part in whether children enjoy being outdoors. Paul Berry, chair of AMC’s New Hampshire Chapter, considers fall the best time to take children hiking: “The bugs are gone, the kids don’t get so hot and sticky, and the views are spectacular.” He recommends hikes to open summits, such as Mt. Monadnock, and to peaks with a fire tower, such as Mt. Cardigan.

2. Join in organized activities. AMC chapters offer family outings throughout the fall, and many local and state parks plan weekend or after-school activities, like the “Thoreau for Kids” program at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. AMC's Hike the Highlands Scavenger Hunt in southeastern Pennsylvania, like the quests, letterboxes, and geocaches organized by other groups, combines the fun of a treasure hunt with time outdoors.

3. Work together to address community-wide problems that discourage healthy outdoor play. Advocate for walkable, safe neighborhoods; natural play spaces; and school curriculums that include direct contact with the natural world and daily outdoor play.

4. Schedule “unstructured time.” As strange as that sounds, heavily scheduled children need the help of parents and other adults to get that “one green hour” of healthy outdoors time they need each day. Pam Hess, AMC’s education director, acknowledges the difficulty: “It’s hard to foster unstructured time. Time on sports teams is fantastic, but it’s not the same. Even when children are with us [in AMC programs], their time is often structured.” Nonetheless, she tries to spend an hour outdoors with her young daughter every day.

As an organization, Hess notes, AMC is “very concerned about the next generation of conservationists and future outdoor enthusiasts.” She’s read the research: People who spend time in “wild” nature as children are more likely to consider themselves environmentalists and to act to protect natural places.

Learn more
• AMC has recently released a fact sheet on the challenge of getting kids outdoors and AMC’s commitment to finding solutions.
• “Nurture in Nature” (AMC Outdoors, April 2008) A great overview of the “no child left inside” movement, using three AMC families as examples.
Children & Nature Network has compiled research on children and nature in three online “volumes,” with readable summaries and links to many of the articles.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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