“When you’re outside and your parents are inside, out of sight, you’re in situations where you’re making your own decisions and taking chances—can I jump over that log or climb that tree? Or can we really dig a pit that can hide us from our friends/enemies in the game we’re playing? These kind of achievements—real achievements, not virtual achievements of killing monsters or stealing cars, building levels or whatever video game realities that people get wrapped up with now—were extremely defining for me and my sense of confidence and independence as a person.”—Justin Trudeau (from an interview with Take Me Outside blog, 2012)
While most parents have childhood memories similar to the prime minister’s, they can’t all say the same for their children. According to ParticipAction, Canadian kids between the ages of five and 17 spend eight to nine hours a day in sedentary activity—and only eight percent get the recommended hour a day of physical activity, some of which happens indoors. Technology is arguably the main culprit, but parental attitudes toward, sending children outside for unsupervised, unstructured playtime is also to blame. We’ve become overly risk-averse, worried about what others will think or afraid of abduction. In the past decade, the number of kids who play outside after school has dropped by 14 percent. Also, many of these children just don’t have time for unstructured play on top of their organized sports, music lessons and homework. “If only parents knew,” says Beverlie Dietze, director of learning and teaching at Okanagan College in Kelowna, BC, “that if you get children outdoors, they will be superheroes in the classroom.” They might even become prime minister. If you’re looking to raise a happy child, a good student and a nice person, the research all points in one direction: outside.
Here are five unexpected ways outdoor play can benefit your kid.
1. Boosts academic performance Today’s parents are obsessed with their children being able to read, write and add numbers before they even start school, says Dietze, but they’re neglecting the fact that outdoor free play cultivates curiosity and wonderment. Moreover, it increases kids’ ability to engage in the arts, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. In a 2010 National Wildlife Federation report, 78 percent of teachers said they believe that children who spend regular time in unstructured outdoor play have more concentration and perform better in the classroom—and that outdoor time leads to higher standardized test scores. In 2016, responding to the trend of cutting back recess in favour of longer periods spent in the classroom, 24 health and exercise researchers from eight countries (including Canada) released a joint statement assuring parents and educators that physical activity is beneficial to cognition and doesn’t negatively affect academic performance but, in fact, enhances it.
2. Improves sleep A third of school-aged children in Canada are sleep deprived, according to a 2016 ParticipAction report card, which states that a sedentary lifestyle and too much screen time are to blame. According to another 2016 study, published in Acta Paediatrica, longer screen time is greatly associated with shorter nocturnal sleep duration among two- to five-year-olds. It found late bedtimes and poor quality of sleep lead to hyperactivity, depression and obesity, as well as stunted physical growth and lower IQ scores. But there’s a simple fix: That same study found that kids who had more outdoor playtime were less likely to wake at night. Exposure to sunlight helps regulate sleep patterns, and physical activity helps children fall asleep faster and get better quality sleep. Dietze saw this first-hand at a daycare centre in Trenton, Ont. When outdoor time (including naps) was increased from two to six hours a day, it resulted in the one thing parents of daycare-age children want most: The kids slept through the night.
3. Increases happiness In 2012, the Fundy region of Nova Scotia launched a project which involved expanding outdoor time at child-care centres and mentoring staff on how to make the most of that time. It produced many unexpected benefits, including, as one daycare staff member noted, happier children and happier educators. The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that a hurried lifestyle can be a source of stress and anxiety, and may even contribute to depression for many children. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have reported that the decline in outdoor play and the rise in overprotective parenting are taking a toll on children’s psychopathology. In Canada, antidepressant prescriptions for kids jumped 63 percent between 2012 and 2016. If we give our kids time and freedom outdoors, say the experts, we’ll see a dramatic shift in their stress levels, self-esteem, self-regulation and overall happiness.
4. Reduces ADHD symptoms While there are no definitive numbers for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children in Canada, studies found that five percent of school-aged children are diagnosed with it. These kids find it hard to focus, concentrate and sit still in class, and have difficulties self-regulating and controlling impulses outside school as well. In BC alone, rates of prescriptions for ADHD medications tripled from 2000 to 2011. In 2001, University of Illinois researchers Frances Kuo, William C. Sullivan and Andrea Faber Taylor surveyed 96 Midwestern families who had children with ADHD and came to a surprising conclusion: “Results indicate children function better than usual after activities in green settings and that the ‘greener’ a child’s play area, the less severe his or her attention deficit symptoms.” Then, in 2008, they looked at attentional fatigue by comparing attention spans after a walk in a park, neighbourhood or downtown setting. The positive effects of the park outweighed the others and were often as effective as a dose of Ritalin. While there is hope that “green” therapy could replace the need for ADHD medication altogether, the researchers have already concluded that park time could benefit kids by at least reducing their doses, allowing them to recover their appetites in time for dinner and get a good night’s sleep.
5. Decreases bullying At Toronto’s Chester Elementary School, it’s not uncommon to see students hanging from trees, playing with construction site materials or climbing up the slide instead of using it the “proper” way. The kindergarten to grade five school is part of a pilot project called Outdoor Play and Learning where children engage in self-directed play with more freedom—and access to random props, including tools, cardboard boxes and tubes, spare tires, logs and rope. Principal Sean Hume says he’s thrown out all the overly cautious playground rules and implemented three new ones: have fun, be inclusive and be safe “enough.” One of the many positive results is fewer kids being sent to the office at recess and fewer complaints of bullying. In fact, Hume says many of the students who were in the behavioural program and previously needed one-to-one supervision at recess have become leaders, showing others how to take creative, hands-on play to the next level. “It is in this environment, where children can touch bugs and smell trees, that they will develop environmental stewardship,” says Dietze, “and an affinity for people, places, nature and things. They’ll understand that they are part of a community.”
While finding the time to let kids run and play in the park or backyard is becoming increasingly difficult in our fast-paced society, the loss of that opportunity is having serious long-term effects on today’s youth. If there’s one idea parents can take from their own childhoods, it’s to send the kids outside.