Does Your Child Play Inside More Than Outside?

My collection Playground was based on the perception that my generation growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, even if they were not raised on a farm, played outdoors more than the generations that came after them. I have since learned that my assumption has been subjected to research and has been the topic for other writers. While traveling this summer, I happened upon a book title that immediately caught my attention in the Mt. Rushmore gift shop. I scooped up the book and bought it.

I recommend that anyone with young children or grandchildren read Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. Well, everyone should read it, for anyone can take a child for a walk in the woods. Published in 2008, this book gives ample examples of how the intelligence, the physical and emotional health, the imagination and development of a child’s brain are enhanced with free play and exploration of the outdoors. Even autistic and ADHD children improve with exposure to nature. That is not to say there is something wrong with organized outdoor activity such as soccer, but the freedom for a child to explore on his own is better. The child’s problem-solving ability and self-confidence grow as he builds tree houses, finds secret places for solitude and contemplation, catches tadpoles, or observes for hours caterpillars in the grass. I think nature-deficit disorder is a real phenomena when children, if they explore nature at all, would rather do it on a dune buggy or ATV, or when given the choice to play a computer game or go fishing, they choose to stay indoors and play an electronic game.

This, of course, is not true of all children, but the trend definitely is there.  For example, I live in rural Montana with no lack of nature to explore. A mile down the road, our neighbor with a fifteen-year old son could not persuade him to go fishing with him and my husband, saying his son always prefers to stay inside with his computer games, which the boy always brings to their mountain vacation home.

That is not to say that computer technology does not have value. If I were raising children today, I would reserve introduction of the computer as an educational tool to the child until the pre-teen years. I would restrict the amount of television-watching, and horror of horrors, never put a television in a child’s bedroom or computer for that matter.  Granted this would be difficult. Parents are always bucking the trends and the latest gadget that the marketers are promoting. I would certainly try to buy imaginative toys–dump trucks for kids to play in the dirt again, ice skates and bicycles–anything to get them off the sofa and playing outside.

The nation knows we are faced with a huge child obesity problem. The overweight child was so rare in my childhood as to be an oddity. That poor child was noticed as not being the norm. Now that overweight child has plenty company so as not to feel different. In addition to singling out the rise of technology and around-the-clock television as contributors to nature-deficit disorder, Richard Louv in his book recognizes that fear is also a factor.  Because of child predators, parents do not want their children to wander far from home. They want to know where they are every minute of the day. They drive or walk them to school. I remember walking miles by myself. No parent accompanied me to meet a school bus. As long as we were home before dark, parents did not worry. Louv suggests we teach children the adult behaviors to beware of, rather than instill fear of all strange adults.

As I thought about Louv’s exposition of nature-deficit disorder, another component of this trend came to mind, which he did not mention. Americans have become accustomed to extremely large houses considering that the average size of families have shrunk. My parents raised four children in a house less than 1000 square feet and with one bathroom. Think of a couple raising one or two children in a 3500 square foot house with 4 or 5 bedrooms and 2 or 3 bathrooms. Each child has a bedroom of his own; four decades ago usually the girls shared one room and the boys another. There are places to hide in today’s monstrous house.  Why play outside when a child has a private world inside? When houses were smaller, going outside to play was an attractive alternative. The outdoors was a great get-away where we could breathe freely and create our universe. When mother said “Go outside and play,” we were happy to get out of her hair in a flash.  As in all social changes more than one component enters into the equation.

In the poems in Playground written over the course of 2009-2010, I take a look at those mainly outdoor activities and crude non-electronic toys that furnished the fuel for a childhood rich in imaginative life and physical exercise without the sedentary play and visual screen imagery that children get pre-packaged so often for them today. I put myself in the camp that wants to restore mud pies, finger paints, lightning bug catching, and tree houses (among other things) to childhood.  At the minimum, I want the pendulum to swing back on the side of children playing outside more than they play inside. Unfortunately, by all studies today, the time children spend playing inside far exceeds outdoor activity whether they live in the town or in the country.


2 responses to this post.

  1. A beautiful meditation on the necessity of “being outside”. I was lucky to grow up on the family farm smack dab on the Mokelumne River near Sacramento, CA. There is a special sense that is developed in those of us who get this type of unlimited access to the woods, waters and waving grasses- I believe it allows us to connect to the environment as well as to other humans in special, difficult to explain ways that those who have not lived on or close to the land cannot. The transfer of human consciousness into the “magic window” of the computer screen has been more than a century in the making. Thank you for acknowledging the mystery (and the value) of our new media- even as you remind us that to unplug and escape into the embodied experience of the physical world may actually signify something necessary- and radical.


    • As adults, too, we have to make time to commune with nature as our life gets cluttered with indoor activity. Even in urban environments there are sanctuaries of greenery where the soul can go for that necessary solitude that does expand consciousness, awareness, empathy and fellow-feeling for all life.


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