Exciting digital technology is just one of the things keeping our kids inside.
A found that children spend half the time playing outside than their parents did. And there’s more – reported that 12% of under-16s hadn’t been in a natural environment such as a park, forest or beach for at least a year .
Surprised? You and your children might be spending more time indoors than you think. The question is, does it matter that much?
Our homes aren’t always the oasis we think they are. Even the air inside our homes probably isn’t that clean. Indoor air can be polluted by heating and cooking, mould, stoves, burning candles, and fumes from products such as paint, cleaning and personal care products. And that’s just one of the reasons why our children might be better off getting outside more.
Sunlight is our main source of vitamin D, for example – and it’s vital for healthy bone growth in children. Vitamin D deficiency is widespread and several hundred children in the UK are even developing the bone deformity rickets as a result. And one suggests that children who don’t get enough natural light could be more prone to developing short-sightedness.
Scientists have recommended that we need sunlight every day to get our recommended dose of vitamin D. Depending on the colour of our skin, 10 to 20 minutes of sun is adequate in the spring and summer, but during the winter months, we need to spend almost two hours outside to get our fill of vitamin D.
Watching television, video gaming, and playing on smartphones and laptops are popular pastimes which are all keeping our children indoors. Gaming is now one of the most popular pastimes for kids. But there’s a lot of confusing messages about the effect of screen time and gaming on children.
So, what are the real impacts, and how can we decide when enough is enough?
A study of 4,524 children in the US found those who used screens recreationally for less than two hours a day did better on tests of mental functioning . We also know that overuse of screens can cause eyestrain and poor posture – what’s sometimes referred to as ‘text neck’.
Many parents also worry about the content of video games – which can be violent in nature – and what can be easily (and accidentally) accessed online. But the good news is that the latest research hasn’t found links between violent games and negative behaviours such as aggression and depression in children and young people.
While kids who play a lot of video games – more than an hour every day – seem more likely to experience behaviour problems, it could boost the brain power for those who only play for a couple of hours each week, especially when it comes to reaction times. The key, it seems, is moderation.
In the meantime, parents should consider putting filters on the content their children can access on their devices and advise them to avoid giving out their personal details. The NSPCC has some great advice on how to keep your child safe online.
Guidelines from the Royal College of Paediatrics recommend that ‘families should negotiate screen time limits with their children based upon the needs of an individual child, the ways in which screens are used and the degree to which use of screens appears to displace (or not) physical and social activities and sleep.’ They advise that screens are avoided for an hour before bed – their own survey found that 88% of 11-24-year-olds thought that screen time negatively affected their sleep.
“The current UK and Irish guidelines suggest that every child should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on every day of the week,” says Marie Murphy, professor of exercise and health at the University of Ulster. “The 60 minutes doesn't all have to be in one bout – it can be divided up. So, you could get to that target over the course of a day with a 10-minute walk to school, heading out to play at lunchtime, playing some after-school, sport and perhaps coming home and walking the dog.”
Also growing in popularity are ‘forest schools’, explains Jemma Robinson, founder of Robinson`s Discovery Tree, a Bristol-based forest school. “Forest school is all about being outdoors in nature,” she says. “I feel like children nowadays are quite disconnected from that. They have a lot of screen time, they spend a lot of time in school, or have times when they’re told they can't get messy.”
“Forest school helps rebuild that connection between them and the natural world and opens up their wonder for learning from what's all around us.”
Dr Helena Pimlott-Wilson of the Department of Geography and Dr Janine Coates of the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, both at Loughborough University, have been researching the benefits of outdoor play. “Our research initially aimed to see how young people learn in different environments – how they learn in both the school and classroom,” explains Helena. “But also how that compares to learning outdoors – and especially when that is child-led, which is one of the things that forest schools aim to do.”
“We've seen the beneficial impact it has on children in terms of their appreciation for being outdoors and in terms of their experience of education more generally,” says Janine. “They see itas a very positive thing to do embedded within their normal school life.”
The Wild Network has plenty of suggestions for what to do with your children once you find some outdoor space. Build a den, try drawing what you can hear around you, or build a sundial from sticks and stones, they suggest. They also run ‘digital detox’ weekends that are free to join.
Forest school and outdoor playtime in general has been proven to have many benefits for both children and adults. Exercising in a rural environment has been shown to significantly raise self-esteem. So get outdoors with your family this weekend and feel happier for doing so.
 Natural England, 2016. Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment: a pilot to develop an indicator of visits to the natural environment by children, GOV UK - Natural England https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/
 Jeremy J Walsh, PhD , Joel D Barnes, MSc, Jameason D Cameron, PhD ,Gary S Goldfield, PhD ,Jean-Philippe Chaput, PhD ,Katie E Gunnell, PhD ,Andrée-Anne Ledoux, PhD Roger L Zemek, MD, Prof Mark S Tremblay, PhD, 2018. Associations between 24 hour movement behaviours and global cognition in US children: a cross-sectional observational study, THE LANCET Child and Adolescent Health, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanchi/article/PIIS2352-4642(18)30278-5/fulltext