I used to roll my eyes every time one of my elders started a story with “When I was your age…”
But the truth is, I learned from those stories–both about my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties; and also about the generational differences in their childhoods and mine.
These days, I find myself making the same comparisons when looking at my own children’s experiences.
No, I did not have to walk ten miles to school. In the snow. Uphill.
However, I did ride my bike around town, build a tree fort with my friends, dig a hole in our backyard we thought would take us to China, and play unsupervised until the street lights came on.
All in all, I spent a heck of a lot more time outdoors.
So Why Aren’t Kids Outside?
We all care about our kids and want what’s best for them. And yet–without any of us planning it or even recognizing it was happening–in the past 20-30 years, changes in our society have fundamentally transformed their lives.
Many of these changes have proven detrimental.
Namely, less time outdoors, loss of unstructured free time, and nearly unlimited access to technology.
Various factors are responsible for the shift: urbanization, less access to natural spaces, busier lives, more homework, no unstructured time, “helicopter parents,” and powerful competition from television, phones, and computers.
(Depends on Who You Ask)
Despite facts to the contrary, parents cite their fears of random violence, traffic, germs, and stranger-danger for not allowing or encouraging kids to be outside.
One study found that a full 94% of parents listed safety as the primary reason they don’t let their children play outdoors. For parents of older kids and teens, the catch-all “safety” included getting into fights, vandalism, and access to drugs.
On the other hand, teens themselves say interest in other activities is the reason they aren’t outside. Watching TV, playing video games, texting, listening to music, and using electronics to access the internet were named as their preferred activities.
They Spend HOW Much Time Online?
To illustrate, the life of the average teenage boy today includes a whopping eight hours per day in front of a screen.
Total media exposure skyrockets to nearly 12 hours per day.
Often, boys are using more than one device at a time; scanning social media while listening to music, or texting friends while watching Netflix.
Keep in mind, these findings were pre COVID-19. With school closures and social distancing, the numbers are undoubtedly higher.
For example, when the media company Nielsen compared the television and streaming habits from the same time period before and after the pandemic, they found a year-over-year increase of 300% among teens ages 12-17.
Filling a Basic Human Need
While it might be tough to help boys unplug and get outside, the reasons to are compelling.
Connectedness to nature is a basic human need. Throughout our evolution, man has spent the majority of his life interacting with the outdoors. It is relatively recent in human history that we have lived and worked indoors.
Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, says people are innately attracted to being outside.
“Biologically, we are all still hunters and gatherers, and there is something in us, which we do not fully understand, that needs a direct connection to and occasional immersion in nature.”
Healing Mind, Body, and Spirit
It’s no wonder then that spending time outdoors provides a smorgasbord of positive benefits to boys’ general health and well-being:
- Reduced stress. Time spent unplugged and in nature reduces both physical and psychological stress. Stress levels fall within minutes of walking or sitting outside.
- Increased executive functioning. Skills such as focus, impulse control, and problem-solving are learned and honed through time spent outdoors.
- Better social skills. Outdoor spaces foster more cooperative play, teamwork, and provide opportunities for making friends.
- Enhanced school performance. A number of studies show that experiences in nature improve academic outcomes. This includes better math, reading, and writing skills; better retention; higher grades; and higher standardized test scores.
- Improved physical fitness. Boys are naturally more active when they are outdoors. Increased fitness also leads to reduced obesity.
- Strengthened immune system. Being outside exposes kids to dirt, which in turn, exposes them to a wealth of “friendly” bacteria. This can decrease allergies, asthma, and childhood illnesses.
- Getting dirty also introduces maturing brains to bacteria found in soil which activates a group of neurons that produce Serotonin (the “Happiness hormone”).
- Better sleep habits. Sun exposure and outdoor activity help reset natural sleep rhythms.
- More sun exposure also provides Vitamin D for stronger bones, less cardiovascular disease, and better mood.
Outdoor Boys are Happier Boys
Finally, being in natural environments offer boys numerous protections against anxiety and depression.
One comprehensive study by The Journal of Adolescent Health followed 9,000 adolescents over two decades. The results showed that those with more greenery exposure were 11% less likely to experience significant symptoms of depression.
Outdoor activities often increase Dopamine – the feel-good neurochemical that comes from doing risky things, healthy competition, physical exertion, and having fun.
Being in a natural setting with open spaces, trees, and inspiring views helps teens get in touch with their feelings, clear their minds, and come away feeling rested and restored.
Whatever the reasons that boys spend less time outdoors than we did in our youth, the call to action is clear: get those boys off their screens and outside.
By Natalie Walker Whitlock, for The Forge School
If your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.
This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice.
The suggestions herein should be adapted to local and state laws and mandates, and your own individual and family circumstances.