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How to Get Kids to Play Outdoors


WebMD Commentary from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Meagan Francis
Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo
Why kids are spending so much time indoors, how it hurts them — and what to do about it


When I was 10, the age my oldest son is now, I raced outside nearly every summer morning. All the neighborhood kids left their houses right after breakfast, eager for another day of exploring streets and trails, climbing trees, or hunting for fuzzy caterpillars on the leaves of bushes and shrubs. We barely set foot inside until dusk, when we finally trooped home, filthy, scabby-kneed, and exhilarated. As I cuddled with my mother on the sofa after a long day of play, she'd inhale deeply and sigh, "Mmm, you smell like sunshine."

I wish my four kids smelled like sunshine, but if indoors had a smell (computer-screen cleaning fluid? plastic DVD cases?), I'm afraid that would be their signature scent. Staying inside is definitely their default, and sadly, that seems to be the new norm for most kids. In America today, a child is about three times more likely to play video games regularly than to ride a bike, a comparison of studies suggests; the National Sporting Goods Association reports a 33.2 percent drop in bicycling between 1996 and 2006. Even getting to school doesn't get kids outside: In 1969, 87 percent of kids ages 6 to 17 who lived within a mile of school walked or biked there. By 2004, the figure had dropped to 48 percent (of children 9 to 15). "Kids aren't going out the front door much anymore, let alone into natural settings," says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and chairman of the Children & Nature Network. He's quick to add that "nature" doesn't have to mean a forest preserve, just any outdoor area that's not too manicured. "A soccer field is not nature, but the edge of the soccer field, where it gets rough and you see weeds and rocks, is," he says. "Digging a hole and finding life, getting physically engaged with the world — that's nature."

Several studies have shown that regular, unstructured playtime in nature makes kids smarter, calmer, more self-disciplined, more cooperative, and happier. As a child, I loved going outdoors for its own sake, but looking back, I value the gifts it gave me: a strong, healthy body; an up-close-and-personal relationship with the birds and bugs and plants of northern Michigan; a resilience borne of the many scraped shins and bike crashes I never let slow me down; and the joy of knowing that every day held adventure and excitement right outside my front door.

So what's keeping our kids indoors? Read on for a rundown of the attitudes, both ours and theirs, most likely to prevent them from heading for the backyard — and parent-tested ways to overcome them.

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