Take the kids outside

Help keep them healthy by fostering a love of nature

A disturbing new study of a dozen countries reveals that 1 out of 2 children spends less than an hour each day in the outdoors. The independent research, commissioned by laundry detergent company Unilever, was prompted by an article last year noting that inmates of U.S. maximum security prisons spend twice as much time outside.

Considering we’re talking about the world’s initial wave of so-called digital natives—the first generation of children to grow up during the Digital Age—perhaps the findings are not surprising. Kids today are glued to their computers, tablets and smartphones. When they’re not using those devices, they’re often found plopped on the couch in front of the television, where they can watch programs on-demand or play the latest video games. And they’re great at multitasking with their screens.

To be blunt, that sort of lifestyle is unhealthy. Higher rates of TV-watching, for example, are linked to obesity, irregular sleep, behavioral problems, poor academic performance and violence.

In recent years, the trend of little outdoor activity for children has been labeled “nature deficit disorder.” Studies on this crisis have underscored the importance of outdoor recreation. Research shows that playing outside fosters exercise; being in the elements (the dirt, bacteria, etc.) boosts the immune system, allowing children to take in natural vitamin D; and the brain benefits, too, as outdoor play spurs the imagination.

So, what are parents to do? For one, they can reduce their children’s screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours daily. In addition, the doctors’ group urges parents to eliminate media entirely for kids younger than 2 years old.

One thing is for sure: Young people can live without their devices. Parents, it’s your job to get them out into the world. Do that by fostering a love of nature—a gift that aids the body and mind.