If there’s one thing that I’m constantly worrying about, it is that my kids are not spending enough time in nature. Sure, we go outside for at least a little bit every day. But my oldest daughter has long school days, my youngest goes to daycare most of the time and my own work schedule can be extremely hectic. Even though we often spend hours on end outside on the weekends, I sometimes feel like we’re not getting enough “Vitamin N,” as author Richard Louv calls it.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one. Not enough outdoor time is actually a concern for parents across the globe. Among U.S parents, 65 percent worry that kids don’t get enough time outside, according to a recent survey by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with Disney. Parents in Brazil and Hong Kong feel the same way. As many as 82 percent of American parents also responded that nature is “very important” to their children’s development – second only to reading as a priority.
This is good. But unfortunately, kids still don’t get outside as much as they used to or need. According to the survey, American preschoolers spend 12 hours outside each week, whereas teenagers spend less than seven. In comparison, the average American child spends 53 hours per week watching TV, playing computer games and surfing the internet, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
If almost everybody thinks nature is important, then what’s keeping our kids indoors? Homework, electronics and after-school activities are competing for time in all the countries surveyed. The American parents and teenagers also said discomfort (too hot, too many bugs etc) was a big reason for staying indoors.
So how do we fix it? Here’s my recipe for a nature-deficit intervention:
I know from experience that it’s very easy to put nature on the back burner and treat it as an accessory that we’ll get to after we’re done with everything else. “I’m just going to fold this pile of laundry, then we’ll go outside.” But, as I explain in 13 Reasons to Let Your Child Play Outside, we need to realize that time in nature is a necessity for our kids (and us!) to stay healthy. I don’t know of a single parent who ever gets to the bottom of their to-do-list, so if you keep putting nature time off, it might not happen. It’s OK to let the dust bunnies under the couch wait another day, and forget about the 25-ingredient Pinterest recipe that you had planned to cook. Really. Pack a simple picnic and head out the door instead.
- Set goals
As a fun challenge, the folks at 1,000 Hours Outside have vowed to spend a thousand hours outside with their kids in a year. Decide what’s a realistic goal for daily outdoor time for your family and go with that. As you make a habit of going outside in all kinds of weather your kids will learn how to handle it and become more comfortable. You don’t need to show up with a bucket list of activities – unstructured outdoor play is great for children and you can keep it as simple as you want to. Simple things like jumping in mud puddles, gazing at clouds and digging for worms are all perfectly acceptable activities!
- Unplug and unwind
In nature, there are no distractions like TVs, computers and other electronics, making it ideal for family bonding time. Try to find some activities that all family members enjoy and treat it like quality time together rather than another thing that you “should be doing.” Unplugging in nature is equally beneficial to parents, who often tend to be just as addicted to electronics as kids (myself included), and can actually reduce stress. Try camping for a weekend without your electronic devices – you might be surprised by the effect it has on your family!
- Bring it outside
Let your kids do their homework outside, either in your backyard or at a park on your way home from school. Nature can do wonders for children’s ability to concentrate. Let younger siblings bring out some of their favorite toys. Grab a blanket and read a book in the grass. Eat dinner on the deck. Many things that you would normally do inside could just as well be done outside – what else can you think of?
- Get connected
You don’t have to ban electronics to get kids back outside, just use them wisely. For example, we often use my smartphone to take photos of wildflowers and animal tracks that we later try to identify. I’m also among the 75% of parents who use online resources to learn about nature and the outdoors. Many blogs that focus on connecting children with nature, including Nature Rocks, are full of ideas on where to go and what to do with kids of all ages and in all types of weather!
What’s your best tip to get kids back outdoors? Please share your thoughts!