It seems like every morning, I'm being recommended readings on children, youth and anxiety. And I guess I'm not surprised to see so much research now about the links between smartphone use, anxiety and depression in our youth. My daughter (and avid smartphone aficionado) and I have good breakfast conversations about the other factors that may be a part of this phenomenon (standardized testing, parents' technology use, media influences, etc.) but I think we need at least to examine whether our dependency on technology may at least be a part of the problem.
What's the chicken and what's the egg? Are children spending more time indoors because they're too connected to their screens? Or are children too connected to their screens because we're not telling them to go outside? We can leave the debate for another day. Whichever comes first, good research on children's development, family cohesion and anxiety suggests that we - not just our children, but all of us- need to spend more time outside. Here are some reasons why:
- Being outdoors builds self-assurance, creativity and agency: there are endless ways in which children's problem-solving skills are strengthened, opportunities for open-play and decision-making and choices to be made about how to engage. Outdoor play usually lacks the rigidity of indoor play. And as a result, children learn to design their own games.
- Being outdoors gets kids' bodies moving and stills their minds: You don't have to be a part of an organized team. A walk around the neighborhood, some time at the playground, a hike with the family: unorganized outdoor play moves different muscles and builds their capacity for attention and concentration.
- It reduces stress, fatigue and anxiety: Being outdoors increases our focus and decreases our stress. While constructed environments, especially higher-stress ones, may require directed attention and prolonged focus, activities in nature support soft fascination, which is both an effective recovery from directed attention and quite a lovely feeling all by itself.
The opportunities are as varied as your own community. And while some may require some planning (don't go camping without thinking ahead!) you shouldn't keep yourself from being outdoors with your children just because you haven't planned anything special. Take a walk at your child's pace. Ask your teenager to go on a hike with you and practice your listening skills. Hike with a friend. Walk to the grocery by yourself. We need the outdoors, both because it's a benefit to our children's development and because it's a human need for adults as well. Go on and log off. I promise... the screen will be waiting for you when you return.