Monday, June 21, 2021

The Children Tell Me They Would Rather Be Outside

I once spent a couple days informally polling the kids at school. My question was simple: "Would you rather play outside or inside?" Every one of them answered, without hesitation, "Outside." It's the answer I would have given as a child. It's the answer I would still give today. 

The average American child spends 4-7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors. Why so little? The main theory blames screen-based technologies, but when I asked the same kids in the same survey if they would rather play with their friends, play a video game, or watch TV, nearly all answered, "Play with my friends." (Although one thoughtful respondent summed it all up by saying, "I would rather play video games outside with my friends.")

Now, I'm sure that my own casually collected data, which I've repeated now with several groups of kids, is skewed because of how much our community values and supports being outdoors, but we're also in Seattle, home to Microsoft, Amazon, and Expedia, not to mention major offices for Google, Apple, and Facebook. These children come from tech savvy families. They all know how to use computers, tablets, and smartphones, yet when asked, they say they would rather play outdoors with their friends. 

From where I sit, blaming technology for the lack of unstructured outdoor play is, frankly, a cop out.

If we're going to blame anyone, we need to blame ourselves. Schools, in particular, are culprits, as classroom time increasingly consumes entire days, leaving almost no time at all for recess. Seattle's public school teachers recently went on strike and one of their demands was a minimum of 30 minutes of outdoor play a day for elementary school children because many kids were apparently not even getting that. It's better than 4-7 minutes, but still strikes me as heartless. Children need hours outdoors, every day, not minutes.

Does anyone still need to be persuaded that children should be spending more time outdoors? Studies consistently show that kids who spend more time outside are smarter and happier. They are more attentive and less anxious. They are more confident, more creative, demonstrate a greater sense of responsibility, and, of course, being outdoors promotes overall physical fitness. But I think most of us know this. It's almost common knowledge, yet the kids are still only getting 4-7 minutes a day outside.

Director of the Berkeley Forest School, co-founder of the California Association of Forest Schools, and speaker at Teacher Tom's Play Summit Liana Chavarín told me about her own childhood in East Los Angeles, not exactly a nature preserve, yet she still enjoyed a childhood outdoors, playing outside of her family's apartment complex or in vacant lots. She says, "We didn't grow up seeing nature or the outdoors as something separate from us." 

Today she spends all day, every day outdoors with young children, some not even a year old, but she tells us that you don't need a forest or a bush or a meadow to get the benefits of outdoor play. "The most important outdoor space," she tells us, "is the one you have access to," whether that's a backyard, a balcony, or a few potted plants. I think this is a lesson for adults as much as it is for children. 

Why aren't parents demanding more outdoor time? Why aren't teachers? Our kids are spending 7 hours a day in front of screens because they have no other choice. Too many families don't have access to safe outdoor places and too many schools refuse to use the spaces they have, but I think more deeply, we have, tragically, lost our connection to nature. It's not the technology, it's that we've forgotten who we are.

"This is an indigenous practice of being together with children on land," says Liana, "to build connection with nature, to build relationships with nature, especially in this time of disconnection . . . We can still connect through the land and the creatures." 

Indoors is always an "owned" space, an adult space, and when children don't have access to the outdoors, if they are to experience any kind of freedom, it's going to be through screens, which have become a stand-in in for backyards, vacant lots, and other places where children can feel what it means to be free. Liana explains that outside is "a neutral space. It's not the teacher's space. It's not a school space . . . It is our space. It's ours together." And that is both connection and freedom.

This, I believe, is why the children tell me they would rather be outdoors. They don't care about what the research says. They don't care about being smarter or more confident or more responsible. No, they want to be free. They want to connect. Children need to experience freedom, they need to experience connection, and when we cut them off from that, they seek it out in the only place left, which is through a screen.


To watch my entire interview with Liana, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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