Changes in activity levels, whether we call it play, physical activity, or exercise are needed to address rising obesity trends and to promote personal and social development. The past 25 years have seen a drastic increase in obesity levels, mirrored by a subsequent decrease in physical activity levels in children and adults.
The decrease in children’s physical activity levels is most evident in out-of-school time. Historically, out-of-school time was spent outdoors, routinely in unstructured and unsupervised play. This generation of children is spending 25% less time engaged in outdoor play when compared to their parents’ generation. The physical, social, and emotional benefits of play, and particularly outdoor play, have been well documented. Unstructured play and physical activity promote healthy brain development, the development of social skills (conflict resolution, negotiating skills, and group interaction), curiosity and self-regulation.
Schools, however, are decreasing the time for recess and physical education, in part due to curricular changes resulting from No Child Left Behind mandates. Young children engage in greater amounts of physical activity, and at a higher intensity level, when allowed to play outdoors.10 For each additional hour of time outdoors, children engage in over 20 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).
Whether our goal is to combat the obesity epidemic or promote personal and social development we need to look at additional ways to be physically active and engage in outdoor play.
Strategies for Promoting Outdoor Play & Physical Activity in Both Children and Adults
Provide safe access to neighborhood parks and playgrounds.
Access to parks and playgrounds is highly correlated to physical activity levels in children. Researchers have noted that mothers’ perceptions of neighborhood
safety also correlated with physical activity levels in children. Parents, teachers and physical activity advocates can promote physical activity in outdoor spaces by providing a safe environment. One study noted an 84% increase in physical activity levels in children simply by providing supervised access to school playgrounds in after-school and weekend hours. Playgrounds can also serve as a fun and unexpected workout site for adults.
Integrate technology to attract media-savvy movers.
Preschoolers who participate in less than two hours of media (e.g., television, computer games, Internet) per day engage in an average of 30 minutes more outdoor physical activity than their peers who utilize media more than two hours. Breaking the attraction to media can be difficult in children and adults, so look for ways to integrate technology into outdoor physical play. With greater access to GPS technology came the outdoor pursuit of Geocaching (IPhone users, there is an app for that, too!), a treasure hunt using a hand-held GPS. Many GPS units (and smartphones) also have a compass built in to allow for orienteering that can be done in urban settings or on orienteering courses across the world. These are great activities for individuals and families.
Promoting outdoor play at home and school.
Parents and teachers occupy a great deal of a child’s day. Starting a garden at home or a gardening club at school is a great way to integrate learning and outdoor activity for children and adults. Another idea is to create a walking school bus in which parents pick up school children along a predetermined route so that the group walks safely together to school each day. Parents take turns “driving” the bus. A walking school bus has been shown to increase physical activity levels of children and parents.
There are a number of resources and websites dedicated to promoting outdoor play and physical activity. Outdoor play provides an opportunity to cultivate social skills, reduce stress, and may decrease “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Summer is a great time to explore outdoor options, but year-round adventures await children and adults alike.