The Outdoor Adventure Gap: We Must Help Young People Spend Time in Nature

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Maggie Full Frame for WebYouth are increasingly spending more time indoors, spending hours in front of different screens, tuned out to their natural surroundings. With numerous studies having linked spending time outdoors to physical, mental and emotional health, the loss of time outside is disturbing.

Screen time on its own, such as watching television, playing video games, browsing the Internet, engaging with social media websites, using cell phones and other forms of technology, is not the problem. It is beneficial for youth to be fluent in different types of technology, increasing their abilities to navigate an expanding technological world. However, the imbalance of indoor recreation and outdoor play is cause for concern.

On average, a young person 8 to 12 years old spends about six hours per day in front of a computer or television. On average, teenagers in the U.S. spend even more time in front of a screen for academic, recreational and social reasons — up to nine hours per day!

When investigating the link between the loss of outdoor play and health issues, such as childhood obesity and attention deficit disorders, the numbers are alarming compared with those of 40 years ago.

The cause of ADHD is still unknown, although there are a number of studies that link the disease to genetics, diet and environment. In 2004, Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle published a study that linked ADHD to television. Their study concluded that every hour of TV watched per day by preschoolers increased by 10 percent their likelihood of developing concentration problems and other symptoms of attention deficit disorders by age 7.

Another consequence of losing outdoor activity is childhood obesity. This recent phenomenon is perhaps more related to an increase in sedentary lifestyles than a loss of outdoor play, but it does correspond to an alarming amount of time spent indoors.

According to a recent report by the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, “two-thirds of American children cannot pass a basic physical: 40% of boys and 70% of girls aged six to seventeen years can't do more than one pull-up; and 40% show early signs of heart and circulation problems.” According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents 12 to 19 years old are obese. That corresponds to 12.5 million young people at risk for becoming obese adults and experiencing early death.

Most young people fall short of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, a list of recommendations for the public by the CDC, which suggests young people engage in at least 60 minutes of aerobic physical activity each day. When designing youth programs it is important to remember this guideline — and include active components into the program.

There are numerous mental, physical and emotional benefits in spending time in nature. Young people especially can develop their imaginations, creativity and independence when engaged in outdoor play. They are able to experiment with their environment and characteristics of their natural world. Youth engage their senses more fully when they are outside and are stimulated in a way that is not as easily accessed indoors.

Nature can also be dramatically healing for people dealing with traumatic events. The Institute for Child and Adolescent Development's Therapeutic Garden in Wellesley, Massachusetts won the Presidential Award for Excellence for helping traumatized youth.

Additionally, children with more nature near their homes reported lower levels of behavioral conduct disorders, anxiety and depression in a 2003 study of rural youth. They also rated themselves higher than those without much nature experience in terms of self-worth. These emotional benefits are incredibly powerful, especially when working with youth who are at risk for behavior conduct disorders.

Low-income youth living in urban areas, and many living in suburban neighborhoods as well, oftentimes do not have the opportunity to spend time outdoors. A lack of local parks and transportation barriers mean that these youth are isolated from the natural world. When children do play outside, it is often restricted to certain areas or specific activities. Addressing the outdoor adventure gap is essential as we look to ensure all youth have opportunities to spend time in nature.

If spending time outdoors is so beneficial, why is it that there is little research on the subject? Is it because outdoor play is free, so there is no profit-driven incentive to look harder at encouraging children to play outside?

A new generation is being raised away from the natural world and it is our responsibility as youth workers to provide meaningful opportunities for youth to engage in outdoor recreation. I encourage all of us to take a look at our programming and think of ways to get outside, turn off the screens and enjoy the fresh air!

Maggie Dudley is membership director for the Youth Intervention Programs Association an association of youth-serving organizations and professionals.