Nationwide, obesity has reached epidemic levels. And in no group is this increase more apparent or more shocking than in children. In addition to poor diets, one large culprit is a lack of activity. Overall, children today seem to move less than children of previous generations. It’s easy to blame television or video games, but the real culprit may actually be well-meaning adults. Children in essence only spend their time in two locations, home and school. So what’s changed at home and in schools over the past few decades?
A recent study found that less than 10% of children play outside in wild spaces, compared to 40% of adults that had when they were young. Other studies show that the distance children “roam” or wander from their homes has fallen by 90% in 30 years.
Part of this has to do with overprotective parents. (Read our previous post on the dangers of overly controlling parenting.) In this survey, around 50% of parents said that fear of stranger-danger made them hesitant to let their children play outside. And another survey shows that one third of all parents don’t let their children play outside at all. The famous researcher George Gerbner called this “mean-world syndrome,” or thinking the world contains far more dangers than it does. Television stimulates much of this fear. For example, even though the crime rate has fallen, coverage of crime has increased many times over.
Parents are also much more cautious about letting kids play in dirt and snow. Primarily, they fear their children getting sick. But studies have shown that exposing young children to dirt can actually help prevent allergies and asthma later on. And contrary to what your mom might have told you, playing in the cold doesn’t actually cause colds.
Another big factor in the lower amounts of activity children get: schools cutting recess. Across the U.S., schools have reduced recess time in favor of more time to teach science, math, and language, partially due to the strict requirements of No Child Left Behind. Kids today get an average of 26 minutes of recess, 12 hours less a week than children in the 1970s. Schools have also made cuts to physical education programs. In just twelve years, the percentage of children who attended a P.E. class dropped almost by half.
As a parent, you may think the answer lies in enrolling your kids in extracurricular activities such as soccer, but the main function of recess is to allow unstructured play time. The importance of recess and activity actually goes far beyond just the physical. While teachers and principals may have once thought that time on the playground was time wasted, they now realize that children use such play to learn and also to give their brain a break. Even just 15 more minutes a day can do the trick. And contrary to what educators think about more time in the classroom leading to better test scores, the evidence shows that making kids study longer with less recess doesn’t improve academic performance.
As it turns out, allowing kids to have unstructured play time outside can
For instance, when we compare American students to Chinese students, we often talk about how much Chinese students study and how their school day lasts longer. But the real reason for their success may be that most of the extra time in the day is play time, activities, a leisurely lunch break, and time to socialize. Nearly 25% of their day is spent in non-academic activities. The end result is students who enjoy learning, process information better, and get along well with their peers.