Time outdoors important for youths

Unstructured play is key in mental, physical development

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Whatever happened to “Go outside, and don’t come back until dinner time!”?

Kids just don’t play outdoors the way they used to and, according to numerous studies, that is starting to create problems — from ADHD to obesity.

“Kids have more demands on their time than ever before,” said Mary McCormac, education coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “But when it comes to unstructured play outdoors, where kids are outdoors exploring, that is only happening about 30 minutes a week on average.

“When you compare that to screen time, it is amazing. Kids from ages 8 to 18 average about 44.5 hours a week in front of some form of screen, whether it is a phone, computer or television. That’s like a full-time job.”

McCormac said part of the problem comes from parents who are concerned with safety issues, such as their children encountering weather, wildlife or strangers while playing outside. Those situations can all be educational, she said, and it’s important that kids know how to respond if those situations present themselves.

Another issue is that kids’ lives are planned out much more than they used to be, but McCormac has a solution for that.

“If scheduling every minute of a child’s life is where we are today, then the best thing we can do is recommend that people also schedule that time,” she said.

“I think a lot of times people get caught up with ‘I don’t know what to do with my kids outdoors,’ and ‘I don’t want to have to drive my kids all the way to the mountains to get my kids into nature,’ but it just needs to be wild to a child’s eyes. It doesn’t need to be as dramatic as going to Rocky Mountain National Park. It can be going to the park down the road or even be exploring your own backyard.”

Benefits of activity

According to McCormac, kids who learn and play outdoors have fewer issues with ADHD, perform better in school, and their behavior in class is better.

“Studies have shown that nature improves kids’ ability to pay attention because it is engaging,” she said. “Because it is engaging, they don’t have to really put any effort into paying attention. It’s healthy for both their mind and body.”

A large concern, she said, is also that as time outside has shrunk, and kids have gotten bigger, people have begun to question whether this could be the first generation of kids with a shorter life span than their parents.

“Adults have to model it for their kids,” McCormac added, “especially when it comes to the outdoors. Whether it is hiking, camping, fishing, or hunting, if kids aren’t doing those with the adults in their lives, it is not likely they are going to grow up to do those activities as adults, and that’s a concern.

“These kids are our future park rangers, our future wildlife rangers, and our future voters. They are going to vote on issues that are going to be beneficial or hurtful to the environment. If we don’t give them the tools to make responsible and educated decisions, what is going to happen to our wilderness?”

Mark Giebel, Backcountry Wilderness Area coordinator for the Highlands Ranch Community Association, echoed McCormac’s sentiments and pointed to the youth camps the HRCA offers each summer in the backcountry as a means to education, mental and physical health, as well as getting kids out of their comfort zones.

“The main goal of our programs in the backcountry is to use them as a tool to promote the outdoors and to connect people to nature,” he said. “Our youth camps, horseback trail rides, hay rides, nature hikes and elk hunts all provide tremendous opportunities to enjoy the outdoors without spending the time and money it takes to head into the mountains.”