The defining word many of my friends use to describe their childhoods in the 70s and 80s is ‘free.’ After school and on weekends they would stuff snacks in their backpacks and peel out on their bikes as their mothers’ voices faded behind them- “Be home by dinner!”. But those days of childhood are over. Safety concerns and the pressure to enrich the lives of children compels parents to enroll them in various extracurricular activities, resulting in many children having little unstructured free time while more and more of that time is spent in front of screens. Could a lack of playtime, particularly outdoors in nature, be detrimental to children’s well being?
Nature deficit disorder tied to behavioral problems
In 2005, psychologist Richard Louv wrote a book titled Last Child in the Woods, where he noted the precipitous rise in the number of American children diagnosed with behavioral disorders such as hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, anxiety, and depression. Analyzing data tracking the corresponding decline in the amount of time children spend playing outside, and data on the effects of time spent in nature, such as reduced stress levels and improved cognition and emotional intelligence, Louv concluded that many children suffer from a condition he termed Nature Deficit Disorder. Based on his findings, Louv encourages parents to carve out time for children to play in nature as a necessity for their well being.
A local place to get outdoors
The Leslie Science and Nature Center (LSNC) in Ann Arbor sits on 50 acres of woods on Ann Arbor’s Northside, and hosts camps, after school activities, and special events year-round. Executive Director Susan Westh off encourages parents to take advantage of the LSNC and the county’s abundant parks to get children outdoors in every season. The Center’s extensive trails are open to the public, A busy mother herself, Westhoff understands the challenge. “There isn’t a lot of time in the evenings. Between homework and dinner, it can be difficult to get my kids outside.” It’s even harder in winter. Daylight hours are fleeting, and the deep cold of Michigan keeps many kids indoors. “Bundle them up!” says Westhoff. “Use the long nights as a chance to study the night sky. Learn to recognize animal tracks in the snow. There are all sorts of wonderful things to do and explore outdoors in winter, even in your own backyard.”
Pediatricians’ Rx: Play for patients
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has taken a stand in defense of play in general. The AAP’s research has found that play can develop life skills, from executive function, adaptation, and learning, to resistance to stress. The study concluded with a recommendation that pediatricians prescribe unstructured, screen-free time for their patients. Many pediatricians are heeding the call. The PLAY Project, a nonprofit research and training center based in Ann Arbor, was founded by Richard Solomon, MD, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician with a special focus on children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). His research has found that the symptoms of children with ASD are reduced significantly when parents engage with them in play from an early age.
“We must take play seriously!” Solomon insists. “Play is responsible for seeking novelty and making new discoveries through exploration. In humans, play is one of the keys to imagination, sense of humor, and social skills. I can say with certainty that children with ASD can be engaged through play. And when they are approached by others in a way that is fun and makes them laugh, play promotes developmental gains.”