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Go inside and play

Today’s kids favor Nintendo over nature

By Christina Quick

Ten-year-old Jonathan Marsh enjoys hiking, camping and playing in his homemade fort in the woods — outdoor activities that boys have been doing for generations. Yet in an age of electronic toys, overscheduled families and disappearing green space, such behaviors are becoming increasingly rare.

Childhood, long associated with mud pies, snow forts and tree houses, is undergoing a transformation.

These days, a growing number of kids are simply staying indoors. Instead of observing ants in the grass or stirring puddles with sticks, they’re watching television, scanning the Internet and playing video games.

“They’re missing out,” says Doug Marsh, Jonathan’s father and Royal Rangers national commander. “There are things you gain from experiences outside that you just can’t get from a video game. You learn about your place in the world. You make memories.”

In his best-selling book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv echoes Marsh’s sentiment that children are losing something important. He even hangs a name on the phenomenon: nature-deficit disorder.

“It’s more a disorder of society than of any child,” he says. “There are many reasons why children aren’t spending time outside. Video games, television and computers play a role. Parents also mention how busy their lives are.

“For many children, there’s no time for free play. Others are kept inside because their parents are scared to death over stranger danger and stories of abductions.”

The effects of this indoor migration are still being explored. Louv says that while today’s youngsters are better informed about environmental issues than previous generations, they have little firsthand knowledge of the natural world. They can expound on rain forest ecology, but they’ve barely explored their own backyards.

In his book, Louv tells of a fourth-grader who said he prefers to play inside because “that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Sandra Hofferth, a family studies professor at the University of Maryland, found the number of children between the ages of 9 and 12 participating in outdoor activities such as walking, hiking, camping, fishing and going to the beach declined by 50 percent between 1997 and 2003.

“Television, computing and video games, all relatively new activities, are indoor activities and require little physical exertion,” Hofferth says. “As they increase, time spent out of doors is likely to decrease unless a way is found to integrate computers and out-of-door activities for children.”

Even the youngest children are being transformed into couch potatoes. A few years ago, researchers at the Kaiser Institute found that preschoolers as young as 2 spend as much time in front of the television set or computer as they do outdoors.

If punching the plastic buttons of game controllers has replaced tree climbing as a favorite childhood pastime, perhaps it’s no coincidence there are so many reports of obesity, diabetes, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression among juveniles.

A 2004 study by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia showed that every hour children play video games or watch television may double their risk of obesity.

Researchers from the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently determined outdoor activities reduce ADHD symptoms in many children.

“The relationship is significant,” Louv says. “The natural world is an antidote to many of the things that are true threats to children. Time outdoors can affect cognitive skills and ability to learn. It can also reduce stress.”

Christina Powell, an Assemblies of God minister, Harvard University researcher, and founder of Life Impact Ministries in Boston, says there are spiritual benefits to outdoor play as well. Powell regularly spends time outside gardening and playing with her daughters, ages 1 and 5.

“Being outdoors supplies the fresh air, sunshine and physical exercise children need for optimal health,” Powell says. “Additionally, time outdoors helps children learn about the marvels of God’s creation, instilling a sense of wonder for the natural world and providing opportunities for joy of discovery.”

Marsh says engaging in outdoor activities with his children opens up conversations about spiritual topics. On a recent camping trip with Jonathan, a frightening bear sighting led to a discussion about backing away from certain situations in life.

“There’s nothing like roasting marshmallows around a campfire and looking at the stars to get everyone in a contemplative mood,” Marsh says. “In that setting, the moments come when your kids really reflect on things. We’re often able to talk about God in ways that aren’t possible even during our daily family devotions at home.”

The good news is families don’t have to plan an expensive vacation to the mountains to create such moments. Experts say even walking a trail at a local park or nature center is beneficial for children and their families.

“The point is, you’re out there creating your own fun and building lasting memories,” Marsh says. “When the unexpected happens — maybe you see a deer or turkey — it’s incredible.”

In time, it’s an idea that could make a comeback. No video games, no electric outlets, just the wild, wind-blown wonder of creation. 

CHRISTINA QUICK is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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