New Survey Says 75% of U.K. Children Spend Less Time Outside Than Prison Inmates

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

The yelling from my son’s bedroom had reached crescendo heights.

“It’s my turn!” my 5-year-old daughter screeched, even though her 9-year-old brother was standing right next to her.

“No! It’s MINE!” he shouted back, as he yanked the iPad from her tiny hands.

She wailed. He stormed out. I sighed.

Just another fun day over spring break where my children huddle over tablets, phones, Wii, and Xbox, while the sun tries desperately to shine through the dark clouds outside. I urge them to get out there and play, but “In the rain, Mum?” is always their reply.

So it’s no surprise to read that 75 percent of children in the United Kingdom spend less time outside than prison inmates, according to a new survey revealing the extent to which time playing in parks, woods, and fields has decreased. Incredibly, one-fifth of the children surveyed do not play outside at all on an average day. Meanwhile, the United Nations’ guidelines mandate that prisoners receive “at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily.” Hard to fathom, isn’t it?

The majority of the 2,000 parents polled said that their children have fewer opportunities to play outside than they did when they were a kid. That is completely the case for me, too. Until I was 11, I grew up on a small lane in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with a park and green rolling fields down to a river just 10 seconds from my house. The kids across the street had an enormous garden where we played football, raced bikes, built dens, and rode go-karts. I was always dashing across the street to call for them to play after school.

But now as a mother myself, I live on a busy road often used as a shortcut to avoid the highway that runs parallel. The parks at either end of my street are fantastic, but I’m nervous about letting my 9-year-old walk and play there alone — or even with friends. Perhaps our stranger danger fears have overtaken our need to let our children roam outside.

According to Mark Sears at The Wild Network, which works to increase wild play in children, that is the case. He told The Guardian, “The truth is we are enclosing our children. We are stifling their ability to be free, to be at their best as children, and it is having significant impacts.” He added that increased obesity and lower mental wellbeing in children were directly linked to a lack of physical activity.

My first instinct is to blame the terrible weather we often endure in the U.K. — a far cry from my Australian husband’s upbringing, where he spent every hour outside of school on a tennis court or playing in the surf. Yet, I distinctly remember my own childhood was one of playing hopscotch, batting a ball against the wall, making perfume from roses, and climbing trees like monkeys.

Are we letting our children spend too much time on devices when they should be running around, getting muddy and burning off excess energy? If the survey is correct, kids are spending double the time on screens than they are outside, which is a devastating statistic. Then for some parents living in inner cities, the lack of parks and open spaces means their children literally have nowhere to play.

Environment secretary Liz Truss hopes to address this by announcing this week that every schoolchild will have the opportunity to visit a national park, noting that only 10 percent currently have access to outdoor learning. “I want every child to know the joy and wonder of the great outdoors — our children should be climbing trees, not the walls.”

I couldn’t agree more. But life is very different from the late ’70s and early ’80s when I grew up. For a start, the majority of women I know work, often full-time, so kids are in after-school clubs or daycare until mom and dad get home from work. If the government want us to encourage our kids to spend more time outdoors, then I wish they would subsidize childcare so more parents could afford to work part-time and have more time to spend with their kids outside. More flexible working hours for moms and dads would help, too. Creating more parks and conservation areas would also ensure all children had an area to go and roam around in – and I don’t just mean a concrete playground the size of a postage stamp.

I’m tired of surveys that insinuate that once again, we are failing as parents. We’re over-worked, stressed, and tired, and most of us are trying to bring up our families with little support. We’re doing the best we can, in rainy British weather with tiny or no gardens and a finite amount of holiday time off from our jobs.

Now, excuse me while my kids and I put on our raincoats and venture outside for a splash in the puddles. Roll on summer …

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