• From Screen Time to Green Time: Why today’s children need more time outside

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    Does it feel as though today’s generation have little interest in playing outside in comparison to the youth of yesteryear? With technology playing a larger part than ever in our children’s personal development, it’s easy to be concerned about the amount of time our children spend playing outside.  

    Throughout the pandemic, screen usage amongst primary-age children increased by 83 minutes a day – the sharpest increase of any age group. However, some studies have suggested that screen usage did not regress to the mean average afterwards, with post-pandemic screen-viewing remaining 11% higher after the pandemic

    Events like Screen Free Week have helped bring our screen time into focus, while recent studies have indicated how screen time during infancy can reshape children’s brains and emotional skills. Here, the children’s play experts at Playdale take a look at why children should be enjoying more time outdoors and less time looking at their phones – and consider how we can support them to do so.

    How much time do today’s children spend on their screens?

    There is a growing concern around the amount of time school age children spend looking at screens in our modern world. By the age of eight, a child will typically spend two hours and 45 minutes online per day. By age 11, that figure will have risen to over four hours – all while they are still in primary school.

    91% of children in the UK own a smartphone by the time they turn 11, which in itself is not problematic. “It goes without saying that technology is a key part of everyday life; smartphones can provide safeguarding measures for parents, keeping them connected with their children on the journey to and from school. What might be a problem, however, is the sheer amount of time the children are spending on their phones,” says Barry Leahey, President of Playdale Playgrounds.

    Leahey believes we need more detailed guidance on screen time usage from an earlier age: neither the NHS nor the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) provide any detailed guidelines for screen time amongst babies and toddlers. They do, however, recommend a general upper limit of two hours of screen time per day amongst children of all ages.

    The effects of extended screen time at a young age have not yet been fully explored. However, studies from the US indicate that children between three and five who have been exposed to high levels of screen time are at greater risk ofdeveloping behavioural or attention issues.

    Do children have access to outdoor play spaces?

    In many cases, access to outdoor space is not the problem – research shows that 96% of children and young people are able to spend time enjoying the outdoors in a given week.

    During lockdown, data showed that 92% of children had access to a private outdoor garden – but that figure drops to just 66% in London. Access to safe, private play areas also varied significantly according to social factors – minority ethnic children were less likely to have their own private garden, as were families with household incomes below £50,000.

    As such, the importance of public play spaces cannot be understated. However, years of austerity has seen play park budgets fall by £350m between 2011 and 2022, leading to hundreds of public park closures across the country.

    Changing attitudes about playing outside in the street may also play a part – for children in the Baby Boomer generation or Generation X, playing in the street was a daily occurrence. But information from Save the Children UK indicates that just a quarter of today’s children regularly play out on their street, compared to three-quarters of their grandparents’ generation.

    “The research suggests that this is due to children getting into trouble for playing in the street,” says Leahey. “However, it belies a bigger issue – if children aren’t allowed to play in the street, and our public parks are being decimated, where can they play, learn and grow safely? It’s the responsibility of policymakers to ensure that our nation’s children have the ability to play safely outdoors, whether they have a private garden or not.”

    The benefits of outdoor play

    ‘Screen time’ encompasses a broad range of activities, not all of which are negative. Some screen time has the potential to boost cognitive function at a young age, with brain training minigames or educational YouTube videos.

    However, put simply, the benefits of outdoor play clearly outweigh those of screen-based play. 97% of teachers note the importance of outdoor play in helping children to reach their full potential. Playing outside offers children a chance to discover all the same benefits of screen-based play, while also learning how to interact with the world around them.

    “Time spent playing outdoors provides valuable sensory experiences for young children, nurtures a bond with nature from an early age and facilitates decision-making and safe risk-taking. Free time in outdoor environments helps build lasting habits and positive experiences for later life,” says Leahey.

    Outdoor play also helps form linguistic and social skills, encouraging young children to interact with their peers and learn about the impact that their actions can have on others. Time spent outdoors also boosts cognitive function, stimulating creativity, imagination and problem-solving skills.

    Studies also highlight the fact that outdoor play has the ability to reduce anxiety and depression among children. With almost 70,000 children nationwide suffering as a result of inadequate mental health support, the importance of outdoor play cannot be overstated.

    There are physical benefits too, of course – running and jumping helps improve coordination, balance and strength. These kinds of activities have also been known to help develop bone density and muscle strength.

    How can we encourage more time outside?

    “Of course, the onus lays with us as adults to encourage greater time spent outside and less time spent on phones or computers,” comments Leahey. “At a primary school level at least, many schools do a fantastic job of creating blended learning experiences that show children how to use technology responsibly and play outdoors safely.”

    Away from school and in the home, parents or carers can take a range of different approaches to limit screen time – it’s all about identifying a system that works for your specific family. “A no-phones-after-tea arrangement might work, or avoiding using multiple forms of media at once (so no phone use while watching TV),” says Leahey.

    It’s crucial that parents encourage and facilitate outdoor play wherever possible. “As adults,” says Leahey, “it’s easy to forget the importance of play – because most of us rarely spend extended lengths of time outdoors as we did as children. However, it’s vitally important that we set aside dedicated time for our kids to enjoy outdoor play, come rain or shine.”

    At a national level, it’s the responsibility of the government to provide funding for children’s play spaces. While the burgeoning UK housebuilding industry has facilitated investment in public parks for these areas, the government must show support by providing dedicated play spaces in areas of all social condition.

    It’s clear that our children can reap multiple benefits from outdoor play – and it’s also clear that technology has a key part to play in their lives. Without a dedicated strategy to help our children enjoy a blended experience of outdoor play and screen access, they’ll miss out on the benefits that both can bring. One thing’s for sure – outdoor play remains just as important as ever for our nation’s youth development.

    Photo by Harris Ananiadis on Unsplash


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