Recently, I was walking back from the tennis courts on a crisp winter day when I had a flashback to my youth. Suddenly, in that moment, I recalled the wonderful sensation of my childhood, being outdoors, free of immediate demands and responsibilities. I was just enjoying the air, the green, and the sky all around me. I could feel my mental state improve and my body and mind relax. You see, during my childhood, the only entertainment we had after school was to go outside and find things to do. My memory of childhood was outdoors, walking, experiencing whatever the weather was serving that day along with whomever I could find to play with. My walk from the courts reminded me of the joyous feeling that my experiences of youth had created. On that walk home, I began to wonder, what the children growing up today will remember as their happy place? Where will that place be that brings out the relaxation reflex in your children, twenty years from now? An interesting question and one that every parent should ponder because you have a lot to do with the kind of childhood your children have. So stay tuned, for the next edition of Portable Practical Pediatrics where we will ponder the question of where your children will recall the joy in their childhood?
Quick Detour Down Science Lane
In the past few years, there has been an increasing recognition that for children, being surrounded by nature, improves many aspects of their psychological functioning. And, it turns out that this is especially true for children with ADHD. Here is a list of a few ways exposure to outdoors has been found to benefit children:
-Being outside improves a child’s mood
-Being physically active outdoors reduces a child’s chance of obesity
-Being outside can often increase a child’s feeling of well being and relaxation.
-Exposure to the outdoors also has been shown to improve a child’s ability to concentrate and control impulses that need to be controlled.
-And finally, outdoor time has been shown to be restorative psychologically for children- the evidence is clear on that point.
What is the reality of childhood today for many children-screen time is filling more and more of a child’s day.
What is the reality of a modern childhood today for many children? In a nutshell, the trend is striking and involves screens of all sorts, substituting for what previous generations called play. I know you probably get tired of me talking about the current generation of children as victims of digital technology and how this is changing their childhoods but I believe it is true. Sadly, the evidence is on my side. Don’t believe it, consider these current facts:
More than 50% of children consider themselves “addicted” to their smart phone.
40% percent of children have difficulty falling sleeping. a problem that has been clearly linked to screen exposure.
The average child spends only 50% of the time that their parents did outside despite the fact that the majority of parents feel outdoor time is important for their children.
I think you can see that with increasing wealth along with other factors, childhood is being fundamentally changed for the next generation. How this will work out for them, only time will tell. Before you make up your mind about the new screen reality for today’s children however, there are a few things I want to remind you about that we now understand about screen time and children:
-Screens are isolating for children. They generally draw children away from social interaction and into a lonely place of gaming.
-Screen time for children does not teach children needed social skills that real interpersonal interactions would. Like compromise, problem solving, filling boring time with inventive play, the art of conversation with peers, learning to read body language of peers, and how to be empathetic of others. All valuable lessons that they are not going to get from a screen and isolated play, no matter how great the graphics of the game are.
-All of this screen time and “virtual play” moves children away from being physically active an toward a sedentary lifestyle.
-Many of today’s children have a childhood devoid of the outdoors. They are not experiencing nearly the amount of outdoor exposure to the natural world that previous generations have enjoyed. I think it is clear that video games are designed to grab the attention of a child and evoke strong emotions from them while outdoor exposure does the opposite. Your children’s brains are wired to relax when exposed to the bright light of outdoors and sights and sounds of green vegetation and flowing water.
Doc Smo Pearl-Parents create the reality that their children experience
Many of you will be familiar with what I call a “Doc Smo pearl”-an important observation about parenting and childhood that I want you to remember. And here is one that is really important- Pearl: Parents create the reality that their children experience. That means that the parenting choices you make in your everyday interactions and activities with your children, to a large degree, create the world that your children live in. From what they eat, to how much sleep they get, to how they spend their free time, to really everything. Remember, you are the captain of that ship, especially when they are young. I wrote an entire book on the subject called Can Doesn’t Mean Should. I hope you have read it. The point is, is that if you allow your children’s childhood to be filled with video games, smart phones, and texting rather than outdoor unstructured play with friends and outdoor activities, their happy place of from their childhood is likely to be indoors, in bathed in artificial light, and involving technology of one sort or another. I think that is a shame. By one estimate, adults spend 90% of their time indoors. Are children now destined to live the same indoor fate during their childhoods as well? Will their feeling of well-being come when exposed to wonderful graphics on a screen or super sweet video game console? I truly hope not. They might miss out on the feeling that I get, to this day, when outdoors on a crisp bright day… that of relaxation and happiness.
I hope you enjoyed that discussion as well as others in the Portable Practical Pediatrics collection. If so, consider sharing a pedcast with friends and family. You know there are now 450 posts to explore. And consider going ahead and subscribing to my blog at www.docsmo.com. All that means is that I will send you notice of all new posts. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, recording in studio 1E, hoping your children grow up super keen, and surrounded by the color green. Until next time.
Thanks to Dr. Monica Miller and Dr. Charlotte Rouchouze for their editing assistance.