I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I repeated out loud what I had read. Nope…can’t believe my ears either. But it’s true. Prison inmates in an Indiana maximum security facility are guaranteed two hours of outdoor time every day; but a survey completed in 2016 found three-quarters of children in the UK spend less time than those inmates outside each day. Half of the children didn’t even spend an hour outside each day. Twenty percent (that’s 1 in 5) didn’t even play outside at all on an average day! (More in Children Spend Less Time Outside Than Prison Inmates and Three-Quarters of UK Children Spend Less Time Outdoors Than Prison Inmates—Survey.) I imagine these numbers are very similar in the US. In fact, a study in 2018 found that children spend an average of 10.6 hours on outdoor play per week (Study: Despite Known Benefits, Kids Are Playing Less). That is only 1.5 hours per day. Our children spend less time outside than prisoners even though outdoor play helps relieve stress, teach safety, and increase immunity (Who Needs a Prescription for Play).
It gets worse. Our children’s free time has decreased in the last 50 years. Take the time between 1981 and 1997. Children spent 18% more time in school, 145% more time doing schoolwork, and 168% more time shopping with parents (Read more in All Work & No Play: Why Your Kids are More Anxious, Depressed). Unstructured play time has decreased even though research suggests children need twice as much unstructured play time as structured time (The Decline of Unstructured Play). Once again, our children have become the prisoners to the structures imposed on them. They miss out on the free, unstructured time that allows them to grow and learn.
One last comparison…our children grow increasingly isolated from supportive, non-parental adults as they progress through school. Rather than have a single teacher for most of the day, our children gain a “revolving cast of characters” in their lives as they switch to a new teacher every hour. This change occurs when our children are going through the massive changes of adolescence and they most need the support of caring adults. (Teen Suicides Are on the Rise.) In effect, they become less isolated from caring adults and more involved with peers struggling with the same issues and who have the same lack of experience as they do. Our children need us.
The big question I had to ask myself as I contemplated these “prisoner comparisons” is: what can we do to break our children out of this prison? Thankfully, there are ways to do it.
- Encourage your children to engage in unstructured, self-directed play with peers. Learn the benefits of such unstructured time in How to Spend Quality Time with Your Children.
- Encourage outdoor play. Outdoor play can accomplish great things. For instance, even risky outdoor play plays a purpose, helping to overcome anxiety…so Let Them Take a Risk.
- Limit screen time. Limiting screen time can increase levels of happiness and increase our ability to understand nonverbal communications and recognize emotions in others (See Just So You Know: Screen Time & Teen Happiness).
- Provide opportunities for your children to build relationships with trusted adults outside the immediate family. In fact, It Takes a Village to raise a child.
Break your children out of prison…beginning right now!