Outdoor time for kids is an essential part of their development. Unfortunately, the average amount of unstructured outdoor playtime for most children has been four to seven minutes per day, pre-pandemic. Coronavirus lockdowns have made matters worse, forcing even the most active kids to stay indoors.
As a parent, guardian or childcare provider, you may have noticed that the abrupt change to children’s daily habits has made it challenging to curb device overload. In most cases, the best way to conquer hyper-reliance on screens and beat the indoor blues is by putting devices away and getting back outside.
It’s the perfect time to encourage kids to explore the outdoors. The weather is warming up, and COVID-19 restrictions are lifting. However, some kids (and adults) may be struggling with whether it’s safe to play outside again. There are plenty of reasons families need to step out of their comfort zones to reconnect with sunshine, sand, soil, and friends. With a bit of planning, the benefits for your child’s overall well-being and development far outweigh the drawbacks.
Children’s Mental Health and Playing Outdoors
Global studies on the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown found that children and young adults have exhibited pandemic-related stress in a few ways:
- Kids of all ages showed “increased irritability, inattention and clinging behavior.”
- Children 3 to 6 years old more commonly manifested “symptoms of clinginess and the fear of family members being infected.”
- Children and young adults 6 to 18 years old displayed “inattention and were persistently inquiring regarding COVID-19.”
- High school and college students were generally anxious, especially about academics and exam cancellations.
Underprivileged kids and those with special needs may be suffering (and acting out) the most. Underprivileged children may not have the same level of parental support or access to proper nutrition and a safe environment at home. Children with special needs may be regressing to past difficult behaviors due to their limited coping skills and the interruption to their sacred, daily routines.
According to Kait Towner, LMHC, RPT, CCPT, IMH-E, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Registered Play Therapist, “Children that stay inside more frequently, particularly those diagnosed with ADHD, have pent-up energy. This unreleased energy can lead to the child experiencing emotional dysregulation on a consistent basis. Exerting energy by having your child play outside is an easy way to combat this emotional dysregulation, leading to a happier child and happier home.”
Outdoor Activities Reduce Stress, Improve Mood and Overall Well-Being
The studies found that stress buildup in kids eventually leads to insomnia, irritability and appetite change. A great relief for the levels of unreleased stress is outdoor time.
The initial transition to more outdoor activities can be challenging. After all, kids have been indoors for a year or longer, connected to their screens more than ever. Towner explains, “Children that stay inside and engage in screens are more likely to be increasingly irritable, have an addictive relationship with their screens/devices, and have increased difficulties transitioning to different tasks.”
According to Towner, persistence is key. “Children who have caregivers that set firm limits and boundaries in regards to screen time are more likely to be more emotionally regulated, have a healthy relationship with screens, and an overall easier time transitioning.” The warmer weather is the perfect time to limit indoor screen time and gently nudge your kids to venture outside.
The role of nature in well-being
Time outside may be beneficial in general, but not all outdoors are created the same. Although much of the world’s population lives in urban areas, humans are hardwired for nature specifically. Even the most disconnected individual will typically start getting comfortable outdoors and learn to appreciate the peace and beauty of nature.
However, a love of the outdoors that leads to healthier, happier kids often starts with the parents. Dr. Jessica Myszak, a child psychologist and the director of The Help and Healing Center, says, “More than anything else, parents can help children embrace the outdoors and opportunities to socialize safely by modeling these behaviors themselves.” You’re probably familiar with the old saying, “Do as I say and not as I do,” but it doesn’t work with kids in today’s day and age.
Dr. Myszak adds, “Screen time has been more prevalent in all of our lives, and as parents’ work and home lives have blurred, being able to turn off the computer, silence the phone, and engage in play and fun activities will speak volumes. Showing children that you are willing to do it will be much more effective than anything you would say to them.”
The inertia aspect of getting kids outside after such a long time of lockdown is initially challenging. Like a heavy stone, getting it to budge at first requires the most energy, but once it’s rolling, far less effort is needed. Keep persistent — time in nature and increased outdoor playtime have many benefits, including: