Most Americans still associate childhood with long days outside making up games in the backyard or exploring a playground or park. But for today’s young children, that’s not the reality anymore.
According to a recent study from the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, nearly half (49 percent) of today’s 3-to-5-year-olds do not go outside daily with Mom or Dad, either to walk or to play. And this phenomenon is relatively new. As the study explains, “U.S. children today likely spend less time playing outdoors than any previous generation.”
A number of studies support the claim that outdoor activity has been declining for Millennials and is reaching new lows for today’s very young Homeland Generation kids. In a 2004 study by Professor Rhonda Clement , 70 percent of (mostly Gen-X) mothers reported that they played outside every day when they were their child’s age, while just 31 percent of their children do the same. Mothers also reported playing outside for longer stretches of time than their own kids do now. Moms are highly aware of declining outdoor time: 85 percent agreed that today’s children play outdoors less often than children used to.
When they do play outside, kids now do it in a much more structured and supervised manner than did earlier generations. Organized sports with adult supervision were the only form of outdoor play that today’s children do more than their mothers did. Meanwhile, the share of kids participating in outdoor games with child-initiated rules (like jump rope and hopscotch) has declined dramatically—from 85 percent when the moms were kids to 33 percent today. Similarly,a University of Michigan study found that, from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, kids ages 3-5 lost about one-third of their free play time and nearly tripled the amount of time they spent in organized sports.
Even organized sports have recently been giving way to studying and more sedentary forms of socializing, at least for older children.A follow-up University of Michigan study found that, from 1997 to 2003, participation in both sports and outdoor activities declined sharply for 6--to-12-year-olds, while time spent studying, reading, participating in youth groups, and attending religious services all rose significantly.
Today’s preschool children have therefore arrived at the tail end of a long-term decline in unstructured outdoor play—and they appear to be intensifying this trend. The lack of outdoor play among preschoolers foreshadows the structured, protected, and highly socialized lifestyle that Homelanders are likely to have as they grow up and come of age. This generation’s name reflects these trends, as Homelanders are literally being kept “at home,” staying indoors, and not straying far from their protective parents.
Indeed, the Homeland generation may even be losing the connection to nature, animals, and agrarian imagery that was traditionally instilled in earlier generations of kids.A recent study in Sociological Inquiryanalyzed children’s books that won the American Library Association’s prestigious Caldecott Medal between 1938 and 2008. The researchers found that images of built environments (like houses) and natural environments (like forests) were almost equally present in books published from the late 1930s through the ‘60s. In the mid-‘70s, children’s book illustrations began to feature more built environments and fewer natural environments. “The gap widened in every subsequent decade,” the study explains. “Natural environments have all but disappeared.” Similarly, interactions with wild animals have declined steadily since the 1960s, and even cats and dogs don’t make as much of an appearance today as they once did.
The Homelanders’ movement away from the outdoors appears to be more dramatic for some demographic groups than for others. According to the new Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine study, girls have a 15 percent lower chance of playing outside daily than boys. (Prior studies suggest that parents may encourage boys more to play outside, in part because they think boys have higher athletic abilities.) There are also significant ethnic differences in time spent outdoors. Compared to white mothers, Asian mothers are 49 percent less likely to take their kids outside daily, black mothers 41 less likely, and Hispanic mothers 20 percent less likely. Mothers take their children outside more often than fathers and are nearly twice as likely as fathers to play outside with their kids daily.
Not surprisingly, mothers’ lifestyles significantly affect how much outdoor time their children get. Mothers who exercise four or more times per week have 50 percent greater odds of taking their children outside daily than mothers who don’t exercise, and mothers who don’t work outside the home are more likely than working mothers to take their children outside daily. Moms with higher educational attainment and those who don’t rely on outside childcare are also more likely to go out daily.
In addition, the researchers found some surprising variables that are not associated with the amount of time kids spend outdoors. The mother’s marital status and household income make little difference. It also makes little difference whether the parents perceive their neighborhood as safe or unsafe. (Since parents consistently mention safety as a reason to keep kids at home, this may mean that no neighborhood is considered “safe enough.”) Perhaps most surprisingly, the amount of time children spend watching television has no impact on how much time they spend outdoors.
There is a large gap between parents’ perceptions of what keeps kids indoors and what the behavioral data actually seem to indicate.In the Clements study, 85 percent of moms see their child’s television viewing and computer-game playing as the number one reason for their lack of outdoor play. In addition, 82 percent identify crime and safety concerns as an explanation for why children don’t play more outdoors. Parents’ other top-stated reasons for staying indoors include lack of time with their child and fear of physical harm to their child.
Regardless of the observed behavioral correlations, it is clear that parental anxiety over the well-being of their children is having a profound impact on the childhood of late-wave Millennials and Homelanders. Today’s children are growing up surrounded by a heightened focus on child safety—and by the perception that being constantly “plugged in” to technology is depriving kids of contact with the real world.
About the author
Neil Howe is the founder and president of Life Course Associates. This article was originally published as part of his newsletter
Essays and comments posted in World Future Society and THE FUTURIST magazine blog portion of this site are the intellectual property of the authors, who retain full responsibility for and rights to their content. For permission to publish, distribute copies, use excerpts, etc., please contact the author. The opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Future Society takes no stand on what the future will or should be like.
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