For more children, less time for outdoor play
Busy schedules, less open space, more safety fears, and lure of the Web keep kids inside.
Summer is a nostalgic season for parents like Noell Hyman. Ask her about the difference between her childhood summers and those of her children, and her voice grows sentimental as she tells of striking contrasts.Skip to next paragraph
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"When I was a kid, the mantra was, 'Go outside and get some sun,' " says Mrs. Hyman of Mesa, Ariz. "We played outside all day, riding bikes, exploring the neighborhood." Today her own three children have far less independence. "It's more me telling them what we're doing. Our days are scheduled with structured activities, and we spend a lot more time together as a family, instead of the kids spending the days with their friends."
Across the country in recent decades, cultural changes have produced a profound shift in how children spend vacation time. More working parents, greater concerns about safety, and the allure of computers, electronic games, and television is keeping more children indoors.
Although about 10 million children attend some type of camp, according to the American Camp Association, many others are likely to spend more sedentary summers than their parents did. Neighborhoods that once echoed with youthful voices are often eerily quiet, except for birds and barking dogs.
"Parents are very busy, and outside play takes a lot of supervision," says Mary Rivkin, associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "We're also afraid about being outside because of strangers, the sun, and insects. Inside seems much safer."
Even suburban sprawl has changed summer activities. "Kids always played in fields or forests that were close at hand," Professor Rivkin says "Now there's less free space."
The result is what she calls "the extinction of experience – kids aren't learning stuff firsthand." She adds, "It's silly for us to think we don't need to be in the outdoors more."
One father determined to give his three children an old-fashioned summer similar to those he and his wife remember is Dave Taylor of Boulder, Colo. That means no TV, video games, or movies.
"It works great," he says. "They're out riding their bikes, skateboarding, playing on the swings, and going to friends' houses. We believe there's great value in kids being bored. Boredom spawns imaginative play. I've seen it work with my kids time and again, whether they pick up a book, turn their bed into a fort, or visualize our dogs as dragons they must defend themselves against."
Whatever kind of summer families prefer, parents face a challenge in keeping children busy. "There is more pressure for today's parent to create activities and schedules," says Anne Gold, who works at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., and is the mother of two teenage sons. She remembers filling her own days as a child, spending time "lying on our backs finding shapes in clouds," taking nature walks, catching lightning bugs, and gazing at stars.
Children's friendships have also changed. Hyman recalls going outside and just knocking on friends' doors. Now people are often not home, and her children's friends live far away. That requires time on the road.
"Every get-together has to be scheduled and planned," says Karrie Heartlein of Galesburg, Ill. "Who will drive? How long will you be gone? What should you bring? Will a parent be there? It seems almost too much work sometimes, and so contrary to my growing up, when I would just yell in the door, 'Hey, Mom! I'm going to Sara's!' "