Many of us take pains to ensure the chickens that we eat are free range and have been allowed to roam around outdoors for part of each day, soaking up the sun and enjoying the beauty of nature. Unfortunately, it seems as if we haven't been ensuring that our young children get to do the same. According to a new study, we're not forcing our kids out into the great wide open enough—especially the girls.
The research, which was done on preschool-aged children, found their outdoor activities were too limited. The study looked at 8,950 kids in the U.S. who were in their final year before going to grade school and found that nearly half of them didn't go outside with their parents to play every day, and it was girls who suffered the most. Preschool-aged girls were 16 percent less likely to be taken outdoors to play by their parents than the boys were.
As for why that is, it's not exactly clear. It's probably a combination of societal norms, boys demanding to go out more, and the fact that some people seem to think that girls aren't into sports or being outside. At least that's what the study's lead author, pediatrician Pooja Tandom, hypothesizes. But whatever the cause, something's got to change, because, Tandom says, "Children need outdoor time every day, and they need more outdoor play opportunities than they're getting."
Disparities in outdoor time didn't just break down along boy-girl lines. Minority children were far less likely to be outside on the playground with their parents than children with white parents: "Asian mothers were 49% less likely, black mothers 41% less likely and Hispanic mothers 20% less likely to venture outside with their kids." This unfortunate reality could partially explain why minority children also are more likely to be overweight. And, of course, the general decline in outdoor activity probably contributes to the fact that young children are heavier than they once were.
It also mattered which parent was in charge. Moms were more likely than dads were to make the kids venture outside, especially moms who are very active themselves. Moms who worked out more than four times per week were 50% more likely to get the kids outside at least once a day than moms who weren't exercisers. That makes a certain amount of sense. Especially because if you're active and crave running around, chances are you might have a kid who does the same.
It also matters where kids spend their days. Kids who are cared for at home make for bigger couch potatoes. Preschoolers are supposed to get at least an hour of physical activity every day, but 42 percent of kids who weren't in childcare did not get outside on a daily basis. That must be the curse of the screens at work. Why leave the house when there are TV, iPads, and other things indoors that are capturing your attention. Kids who went to some kind of childcare got more outdoor time, largely because of scheduled recesses. But even a lot of kids in preschools aren't getting enough outdoor playtime. Tandon says,
There are high-quality child care centers where kids go out regardless of weather, but in a lot of settings, they do more indoor recesses. Research suggests that kids are sedentary 80% of the time when they are in preschool.
That seems really high, especially when you consider how much energy most preschoolers have to burn.
Tandon says it's not enough to just be moving around inside; they've got to be outside, where they're more likely to be truly active. Previous research has also shown that being outside is good for your motor development (teaching yourself not to trip on cracks in the sidewalk is a very useful skill in life!) and also for your mental health and cognitive development. Tandon explains that some of that comes from free play, which is lost when you have more a more structured environment. If you're outside, without a specific task in front of you, it gives your imagination a chance to take over: "For young children, exercise and play is interrelated. Being outdoors is more conducive to both."
Of course, this lack of outside playtime wasn't an issue back in the day when we lived in huts and didn't have video games or even books to read. But now kids' lives are very different than they once were. They no longer roam the neighborhood for hours playing kick the can. They have schedules to keep. They go to activities that keep them occupied and many parents are also busy with work and don't have as much time for the playground. Unfortunately, it seems kids are only more likely to be indoors and sedentary once they enter into elementary school, where their days are even more structured.
Surely, it can't be that difficult to figure out a way to get kids outside more. Hey, if offices can install treadmills and make people work on them, can't elementary schools start having classes where kids walk around the track while they learn about history. Can't preschools harness the energy of the kids by having them run in hamster wheels, which then generates energy to power the preschool? After all, to survive in this modern world they're going to have to learn to multitask sooner or later.