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Kids would play outside more if it weren’t a criminal offense

Little Girl Biking

Sebastiaan ter Burg | Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Calah Alexander - published on 08/14/17

For working moms, and mothers who live in poor areas, getting kids out of the house is not as easy as it sounds.

I hate summers in Florida. I have a touch of seasonal affective disorder, and Florida summers are like winters everywhere else — we’re stuck inside for weeks on end.

It’s not because the outside world has transformed into a winter wonderland, though. It’s because the air is made of hot soup and gnats until the afternoon, when even the sky can’t take it anymore and throws rain and lightning everywhere. Then the mosquitoes come out.


Read more:
Old-fashioned, creative, and offbeat summer activities to help your kids beat boredom

Last summer, I got desperate and downloaded Pokemon Go to give us some incentive to get away from Netflix and misery. It worked, too — Pokemon Go started our family on a path that eventually transformed our lives. As a family, we are healthier and happier than we were last year… which should come as no surprise, according to an IEEP report on nature’s effect on human health and well-being.

According to a growing body of evidence, health inequalities are linked to access to nature. Health inequality affects all stages of life: pre-birth, childhood, adult life and old age. A number of studies show access to nature is vital for good mental and physical health at all ages.

Living in areas with green spaces significantly reduces income-related health inequalities, counteracting the effect of deprivation.

This report is fascinating because it focuses specifically on access to nature (green spaces) in conjunction with the physical and mental health of people in various socio-economic areas. The findings are unsurprising, even intuitive: children and adults in poor areas have less access to nature and spend far less time outdoors. They also tend to be more overweight, more depressed, and more stressed than their wealthier peers.

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I know, I know … correlation is not causation, and all those factors can be explained simply by factoring in economic disadvantage. But we can’t ignore the lack of time all kids, especially disadvantaged ones, spend outside. In fact, I think there’s another aspect of economic disadvantage that contributes as much — maybe even more so — to how little time kids get outdoors: cultural demand for constant adult supervision.

I’m incredibly lucky to live in a place with lots of green spaces, but my kids would spend far less time in them if it weren’t for the fact that in our neighborhood, kids are allowed to play unsupervised.

I don’t mean toddlers, but I do mean kindergarteners on up. They’re accompanied by older siblings at first, but once they know not to cross the street without looking and whose house to go to in case of an emergency, kids are allowed to make like it’s 1970. Different families have different rules — my kids have to tell me where they’ll be and check in if they change locations, while other kids just have to be home by supper. But no one blinks at kids walking to the park or riding their bikes without adult supervision.

Child in Nature

Read more:
How nature can help your child get closer to God

That was not the case when we lived in Vegas. I wouldn’t have dreamed of letting my kids so much as play in the front yard without being right there with them. And since I had to work, cook, and clean, that meant they didn’t go outside very much at all. If I’d been working full-time outside the home and the kids were shuttled between daycare, school, and home, they’d have gotten even less time outside than they did.

If busy parents were allowed to say “go play outside,” kids’ screen time would be drastically reduced. As it is, can you really fault parents for resorting to screens so we can meet deadlines and cook dinner? It isn’t enough to insist that kids need to play outside more in a country where the police will take unsupervised children to social services instead of returning them home — or even just calling their parents.

When parents are prosecuted for letting their kids walk a half-mile to the park, our society must do more than just increase access to nature. We also have to let kids play in it — for hours even! — without demanding constant adult supervision. And we certainly have to stop telling economically disadvantaged parents get their kids outside more, and then arrest them when they do just that.

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