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The Power 20 team was recently at a New York City public school for career day and were deeply troubled by what we saw. We challenged kids to pushup contests; out of about thirty kids who tried, only two 12-year-olds were able to do 20 pushups.
Some were overweight and obese, but most were relatively thin and certainly weak, better described as skinny-fat. The school serves mostly low-income, immigrant children who don’t have access to sports teams, good food, or decent playgrounds, but they represent a global trend: kids today take 90 seconds longer to run a mile than they did in 1975. Empirically speaking, today’s kids are slower and weaker than previous generations.
Intolerance, fear, hyper-parenting, and lack of adequate spaces are forcing kids to stay indoors, which is making them fat and weak.
According to a 2013 British study, 50% of adults recall playing outdoors seven days a week. Today, only 23% of children play outdoors. In the US, only 10% of kids spend time outdoors every day. Meanwhile, screen-time is dramatically up, and childhood obesity has increased from 7% in 1980 to 20.5% today (for kids aged 12-19). Gaining weight is caused my multiple factors, but inactivity is certainly a contributing factor.
Reasons parents and children commonly cite for staying indoors include:
- Parents’ fear of abductions.
- Parents’ fear of injury.
- Kids’ lack of interest in nature.
- Kids’ preference for TV and Internet.
- Too much homework.
- Lack of access to outdoor spaces.
But staying indoors can be more dangerous than playing outdoors.
When kids play indoors, they encounter direct and indirect threats to their health and well being. From this stunning Canadian report on children’s health, we learn that:
- Indoor play is less vigorous. Vigorous play is needed to develop motor skills and build muscle strength.
- They eat more junk food, especially when watching TV or going online.
- Air quality indoors is often worse than outdoors, increasing exposure to common allergens (e.g., dust, mould, pet dander), infectious diseases, and potentially leading to chronic conditions.
- Kids spend more time online when they’re indoors, exposing them to cyber-predators and violent or inappropriate content.
- In the long-term, sedentary behavior and inactivity raise the risk of developing chronic diseases including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some forms of cancer and mental health problems.
Fears of the outdoors and unsupervised play are overplayed.
Children have survived (and benefited from) outdoor play since the beginning of humanity, but many parents believe today’s world is somehow inherently more violent than years past. Violent-crime statistics say otherwise.
- Worldwide murder and abduction rates are lower today than at any period in recorded history. This is especially true in the United States, where homicide rates are down 50.3% since 1993.
- Physical violence against children has declined 9.3% between 2003 and 2011.
- When kids play unattended outside, broken bones do happen, but the vast majority of injuries from play are minor scrapes and bruises.
- In the US, only 115 kids are kidnapped each year by the stereotypical definition (kidnapped by a stranger for ransom or for sexual purposes and/or transported 50+ miles away). The vast majority of the 800,000 kids “abducted” each year are taken by family members or acquaintances.
“Outdoor play that occurs in minimally structured, free and accessible environments facilitates socialization with peers, the community and the environment, reduces feelings of isolation, builds inter-personal skills and facilitates healthy development.” – 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card, Canada
Parents: to the extent possible and safe, encourage kids play outside unattended.
Children play more vigorously and take more risks when they are not being supervised. And that is a good thing, because children learn important lessons and hone their judgement when they flirt with danger. Of course the level of independence kids should have depends on their age, the safety of the surrounding neighborhood, and the child’s own judgement, but we do our kids a favor by giving them more freedom sooner.