This past weekend was a scorcher. It nearly broke some records.
Maya and I went up to the city to spend the weekend. With the nanny away on Friday, I decided that I’d have an easier time managing Maya in the city. Maya can do a lot more in the city compared to our suburban life. There are more parks, more activities to do and more places to do them in without a car.
Take for example, the newly renovated, just opened, playground at Dolores Park. Maya loved the the old playground. The place was large, the climbing structures were novel, the slides were plentiful and long, the crowds were manageable. When it closed for renovation, Maya was a little forlorn. When will it open Papa, she’d ask every time we went up to the city. She’d gaze at the playground turned construction site as the train went past.
She couldn’t contain her excitement when we took her to the opening a couple of weeks back. She was a little flabbergasted, as were we, with the crowd. It seemed everyone in the city had the same idea. It felt like India. Once she got over the surprise, she enjoyed the park. The place looks bigger than the old one, though it isn’t, and is filled with slides and climbing structures which are Maya’s favorite activities in a park. That, a large sand box and lots of room to run around. She was even more thrilled when I took her early the next morning, when there was hardly anybody.
The crowds didn’t seem to have abated a whole lot this weekend. The playground still felt crowded, the newness probably still a big draw. San Francisco rarely has such warm weather all day and everyone seemed to want to bask in its novelty.
Maya was as unfazed by the heat as she is by the cold or the rain. To not go out and play no matter the weather is an alien concept to her. As I moved from one spot to another, looking for shade as I kept her in my sight, I flitted between reading Ann Patchett’s latest work, State of Wonder, and thinking about some of the news I had read the past couple of weeks.
Dwindling Outdoor Time
Looking at the crowded playground with the kids screaming and tearing around, I was almost skeptical of reports that children are spending less time outside than ever before. The latest such report that I encountered was from a couple of weeks back. Published in a journal called Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, the authors stated that the parents of almost half the preschoolers (Maya’s age) in this country did not take the kids outside to play every day. The authors, from Seattle Children’s Research Institute, a reputed institution, derived this observation using a large, existing database of parent reports of about 8950 students.
So what, I wondered. Many families now have both parents working (or are single parent homes). How can they make time to take their young children out. But the study found that even in cases where the children stayed at home and were not in a child care facility, a significant number of them (42%) were not taken outside to play by their parents. What I found particularly bothering was that Asian parents were almost half less likely than a Caucasian parent to take their children out and that girls were less likely to be taken out than boys (16% less likely).
Can’t the parents go for even a 10 minute post dinner walk around the neighborhood, I wondered. Were the kids in unsafe neighborhoods ? Nope, the report said:
“We did not find significant association of outdoor play with child’s time spent watching television, household income, mother’s marital status, or parent’s perceptions of neighborhood safety”.
I was surprised by the TV part. According to this 2009 report by Nielsen’s, kids between 2-5 years spent 32.5 hours a week watching TV, pre-recorded shows, video and playing video games. That’s a little over four hours a day. If we assume that children in that age group spend about 12 hours sleeping (Maya spends 11-12), we still have 8 hours unaccounted for, which is roughly the average adult working day and the time children spend in a day care. And we still haven’t accounted for the little stuff such as meals, commute and daily ablutions. The parents who aren’t letting their children watch as much TV, what are they doing with their kids in that four hours ? The report doesn’t say anything about the kids allergies. So many kids these days seem to have one allergy or the other.
And in the case of children in child care facilities, the situation doesn’t seem that much better. According to this 2008 report in NYT:
“Outdoor play at day care centers is often stifled because a child arrives wearing flip-flops or without a coat or because teachers don’t feel like going outside.
Those were some of the surprising findings from a new study of children’s physical activity in day care settings. More than half of American children between the ages of 3 and 6 are in child care centers or preschools.”
Another report, published earlier this year, by the same group as the one from the 2008 NYT article, repeated the findings. Based on a study of 53 child care providers and 34 child care centers in Cincinnati, the report said:
“Researchers identified three main barriers to children’s physical activity: injury concerns, a focus on academics over outdoor play, and financial constraints. Because many children spend all daylight hours in care, and because some lacked a safe place to play near their home, these barriers to physical activity in child care may limit children’s only opportunity to engage in physical activity, according to Dr. Copeland.”
Outdoors Dwindling In Children’s Books
Children are not merely vanishing from outdoors. The outdoors are vanishing for the children too. A report published early this year talks of the disappearance of the outdoors from children’s books:
“Natural environments, such as forests and jungles, appear to be losing their place in children’s books, according to an analysis of nearly 8,100 images from 296 award-winning kids’ books.
Researchers divided the images in the books published between 1938 and 2008 into three categories: depictions of the natural environment; those of the built environment, say, inside a house, or those showing a middle ground, such as a mowed lawn. They also noted whether or not any animals appeared, and if so, how they were depicted.”
The report said that depictions of natural environments had decreased from 40% (1938) to 25% (2008) while depictions of built up environments rose from 35% to 55%.
Benefits of Spending Time Outdoors
Spending time outdoors with kids is not merely an aesthetic of part-time or unemployed dads. There are several studies that show benefits for kids spending time outdoors. For example, studies have shown that physically fit children have larger basal ganglia and hippocampi, regions of the brain associated with complex thinking, attention, focus and memory. Another study has shown that kids who spend more time outside have a far less chance of developing myopic vision (pun unintended). LA Times reports on this study and quotes some startling figures:
“Myopia is on the rise around the world. A recent study found that in Americans ages 12 to 54, the prevalence of myopia increased 66% between 1970 and 2000. Asia has also experienced a sharp jump in nearsightedness in urban areas. “Nearsightedness is showing up at younger ages and at higher progression rates,” says Thomas Aller, an optometrist based in San Bruno.
Interestingly, the paper reports that children who spend time outdoors have a far less chance of developing myopia even if they read as much as other kids who don’t spend as much time outdoors.
Nature Deficit Disorder
We live in an age where every issue has to have a name. And sure enough, the disappearance of outdoors from children’s lives has a name: “nature deficit disorder”. The term was coined by an author, Richard Louv, in his book “Last Child In The Woods”. He says in an interview:
“When I was a kid I had an intimate knowledge of woods and fields, to the extent that I pulled up hundreds of survey stakes to protect them from bulldozers. I really had a sense of ownership — I had no clue that my woods were connected to other woods ecologically. It’s the reverse now. Kids today can tell you lots of things about the Amazon rain forest; they can’t usually tell you the last time they lay out in the woods and watched the leaves move. It’s not that learning about the Amazon is bad — it’s great, and I’m glad it’s happening — the problem is, it becomes an intellectualized relationship with nature. And I don’t think there’s much that can replace wet feet and dirty hands. It’s one thing to read about a frog, it’s another to hold it in your hand and feel its life.”
This intellectualized relationship with nature also means that children learn about the trees in the Amazon rain forest while remaining spectacularly ignorant about the trees in their school yard. How many preschoolers or even young children look up at the night sky, let alone look up in awe ? Forget children, even we adults have lost the wonder of staring up at the night sky except on occasions which warrant it. How many of us step outside at night to stare up, for getting a better perspective within which we can frame our lives and problems ? When I read about how the ancients determined the size of Earth, the distance from the moon to the sun, navigated thousands of miles across uncharted seas, I’m struck by how much people in older times learnt by direct experience compared to what we do today.
I continue to be amazed by how much we want to give our kids and how much of a wonderful life we wish them, and yet we almost nonchalantly seem to engage in activities that diminish the wonder and the life they might have. While the blistering heat I sought shelter from didn’t break any records, across almost half of the US, March was the warmest ever in recorded history. The consequences of global warming can be the disappearance from my backyard of one of the most beautiful sights in the world, Yosemite Falls.
Yosemite Falls owes its existence to snow melt. No snow, no Yosemite Falls. As one person describes it:
“Seeing and hearing the upper falls, it’s hard to believe it dries up every summer. I remember a late-summer day years ago, when I looked toward Yosemite Falls and it wasn’t there. For an instant, I assumed I must have been looking in the wrong spot, but I wasn’t. It threw my sense of place off balance because Yosemite Falls is the marker that defines that corner of The Valley. Its absence feels as conspicuous as the Manhattan skyline’s gap after 9/11.”
He goes on to write that, in the Cascade and Sierra mountains of the Pacific Northwest (Yosemite mountains are part of the Sierra mountains):
“Fifty-three North Cascades glaciers disappeared between 1971 and 2006. Glaciated area has shrunk 40 percent since 1850, and 13 percent just since 1971. By the time Alex and Nate are my age (who’re now 9 and 7 years), researchers expect 70 percent of the glaciers, which have existed for perhaps sixteen thousand years, to be gone.”
When children don’t even get to explore this natural wonderland, or even if they do, do so cursorily from the vantage point of a car, how can we expect them to do anything to protect it, to save it.
What Can Parents Do
But, we can do something about it. Many of the studies that I’ve quoted above that discuss the dwindling time children spend outdoors, state that the most predictive factors in children spending time outdoors is having parents who do so and having regular playmates. Parents and peers, the two cultural factors that most influence a child’s life.
Parents with little time on their hands can still spend ten minutes going for a walk around the block before going to bed. Or they can spend summer evenings stretched out on their lawns, eyes heavenward, drinking in the wonder of the night sky. Dr. Pooja Tandon, the lead author on the study reporting the lack of outdoor time with parents, has a video for time-starved parents to making time with their kids outdoors. A book called “i love dirt” by Jennifer Ward provides 52 activities that parents can do with their kids to enjoy the outdoors and commune with nature.
When we returned to the park on Sunday, the edge was off the blistering heat. I no longer chased the shade. I finished Ann Patchett’s book as Maya played in the sand. Though the cooler spring weather asserted itself again, the summer had shown its face. Papa, I love Dolores Park, Maya said as she raced away to another part of the park.