Go Outside and Play: The Slow Extinction of Outdoor Play

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Catching a lightning bug. Sledding down a hill. Riding a bike. These are all the rites of childhood that many children in 2014 won’t experience. Or worse yet – don’t want to experience.

In today’s tech-driven world, life revolves around screens. From TV to tablets and smartphones, kids don’t need the outdoors for entertainment. They’re suffering from nature-deficit disorder. Author Richard Louv coined the term describing children who don’t spend enough time outdoors in his book, “Last Child in the Woods.”

Back in the day, Louv writes, “summer camp” was “a place where you camped, hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountain lions. As likely as not today, ‘summer camp’ is a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp.”

See the difference? Today we cast nature in a different light. Kids watch a TV program about nature, they play a game set in nature – they fantasize about a place that exists right outside their door, yet they hardly ever spend time there.

Kids Need a Place Teeming With Life

In the 2013 documentary, “Project Wild Thing,” dad David Bond hones in on the disconnection between children and nature. His own daughter, Ivy, then 6, spent just 4 percent of her time outside when he recorded her typical day. The majority of her time was spent playing indoors at school or at home, or on car rides.

Bond says he couldn’t wait to play outside after school as a child. “As a child I was happiest playing outdoors,” he says in the film’s trailer. But times have changed. He continues: “My children’s generation is going to be the first in history to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.”

And that’s not the only alarming fact.

In 2010, a report from The Guardian concludes that more children visited British hospitals from falling out of the bed versus falling out of trees.  Who knew treehouses, playground equipment, and even swimming pools could one day become extinct, let alone open fields, the ozone layer and rainforests?

“The health of the earth is at stake as well,” Louv writes in “Last Child.” “How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes—our daily lives.”

If we don’t teach our children to enjoy the outdoors, to breathe in the air, to hike in the woods, to watch the clouds roll by, they’re missing out on, well, life. This disconnection – the nature-deficit disorder, according to Louv – is leading to our children’s depression, attention-deficit disorder and obesity.

A Rise in Obesity

In the U.S., children and teen obesity has almost tripled since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Is it any coincidence “The Pee-wee Herman Show” debuted in 1980? I think not. From “Pee-Wee Herman” stemmed “Barney & Friends,” “The Wiggles,” “Blue’s Clues.”

Bond places the blame on parents, too, who are often all too eager to entertain kids by placing them in front of a screen. Why else do you think parents buy cars with DVD players in them? The kids are so engaged in watching the DVDs, they’re not even looking outside, yet alone playing outside, as the car travels past their surroundings.

In “Project Wild Thing,” Bond takes to European city streets, yelling through a megaphone: “Stop buying iPads, take your children outdoors. You’ve bought enough iPads now!” Haven’t we all bought enough iPads? When was the last time you caught a lightning bug? Sled down a hill? Rode a bike?

As Louv says, “our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it.” So what are you waiting for? Step outside.

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