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
“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
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
“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
E-mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.