Many reports are surfacing that discuss the effects of the new digital age on our children’s development. Together with Infinite Playgrounds, designers of natural outdoor playground equipment, we explore how and why a child’s experience has been limited when it comes to the outdoors in the modern age.
Attitudes towards nature and the outdoors have changed over time. Between the 1970s and late 1990s, it was common for children to be sent to their bedroom as punishment with no access to the outdoors. Now however, many children would prefer to be in their room, entertaining themselves, than exploring outside. In their bedrooms, children have new types of entertainment in the form of social media, games consoles and smart devices distracting them from the world outside.
At home, children are spending more than 20 hours a week online browsing websites and using social media. Although the internet and smart devices have revolutionised the way children learn, play and communicate, we are still faced with worrying figures that suggest children are watching more than 17 hours of television per week.
It is without doubt that these distractions are influencing how children view the outdoors and our natural environments. A screen-based lifestyle is considered by many as one of the main reasons why more children are choosing to stay indoors, instead of going outside. However, some also believe that although smart technologies can be educational, it is the well-meaning sensibility of parents that are limiting children when it comes to outdoor play.
Playing without supervision
Children used to venture far and wide when they played outdoors, in the current day however, the radius around the home where children wander to has shrunk by almost 90% since 1970. Similarly, in 1971, 80% of seven and eight year olds walked to school alone or with a friend. Two decades after this, the figure decreased to 10% as most children were accompanied by a parent or guardian. If this is the case when walking to school, then the chances of a child roaming freely in natural settings with their friends is slim. No one is at fault in this scenario, parents simply want their children to remain safe; however, an almost overprotective approach can compromise a child’s mental and physical health.
Outdoor play is associated with a healthy lifestyle as children often run and stay active with friends when they are outside. Inactive lifestyles remain associated to those who remain relatively immobile indoors.
Physical health issues
The decrease in outdoor play by children is having a negative effect on their health and well-being. Around three in ten children in England that are aged between 2 and 15 are considered overweight or obese. If these current trends continue, then by 2050 more than half of all adults, and a quarter of all children, will be obese.
Mental health issues
In addition to physical health issues, in recent years there have been an abundance of reports displaying a rise in mental health problems within children. The Good Childhood Inquiry found that between 1974 and 1999, the number of children suffering from emotional and behavioural problems increased drastically. Now, one in ten children between the ages of 5 and 16 have a mental health disorder that has been clinically diagnosed.
A lack of engagement with the outdoors has also led to children being unable to grasp the natural problem-solving skills that come with being outside and fending for yourself. For many children living in urbanised areas, the countryside is an unknown landscape where they don’t dare to venture, altering their perceptions of reality.
Why should children be playing outdoors?
The way that a child approaches exercise determines how they think of exercise as an adult. Therefore, to ensure healthy adults in modern society, children should be encouraged to play outdoors and remain active from an early age.
Our natural world is highly complex, with an abundance of shapes, textures and spaces for children to explore, discover and hide within. By venturing further than their own street, children can become exposed to new natural landscapes and stimuli, allowing them to play in more innovative ways. Letting go of the smart device and getting children outside to explore the great outdoors might just be the making of them.