This Is Why Kids Need Less Time In Desks And More Time Outside

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Chris Broadbent

Richard Louv, author of the now-canonical Last Child in the Woods, writes in Orion Magazine about a young boy who was hyperactive. He was kicked out of schools, and his parents, frankly, didn’t know what to do with him. But they saw how much joy he took in the natural world, how it “engaged and soothed him.”

So for years, they frequented beach and forest, dune and river, to let their son immerse himself in the nature he loved best. A photograph of the boy, wide-eyed and joyful in the middle of a California beach storm, ran in San Francisco Magazine.

The photo was taken in 1907. The boy’s name was Ansel Adams, known to us now as the most famous nature photographer of the American West and a staunch environmental activist.

The need for children to spend more time outside and less time in desks is not a new one, as Adams’ life shows. But it’s a need that’s become more pressing as the century’s turned, as one technological advance supersedes another at an alarming rate, as smartphones replace paper and crayons and Alexa threatens time-outs.

According to Nielson, 45% of kids 10-12 have a cellphone plan of their own. 16% received one when they were only 8 years old. And though 100% of teachers told a research project sponsored by The Voice of Play that recess was essential for children, those same kids only get an average of 25 minutes of recess per day. In New Jersey, Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have guaranteed kids a mere twenty minutes a day. “It was a stupid bill and I vetoed it,” Time Magazine records him saying. Only 16% of states, in fact, guarantee kids daily recess time.

More time in desks, and less time outside.

Louv told Orion Magazine that, in a typical week, only 6% of children ages 9-13 “play outside on their own.” Swimming, fishing, and bike-riding are all in sharp decline. There are lots of reasons parents keep their kids indoors — or kids keep themselves inside — including the allure of electronics, the need to study, dangerous traffic, and fear they’ll be hurt. The most common reason is the ubiquitous terror of “Stranger Danger,” though, as numerous reports have shown, violent crime against children has fallen to pre-1975 levels, and only about 100 children are kidnapped by strangers every year across the entire US.

And so: the glowing screen, the homework desk.

Meanwhile, kids at the Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center in Ownings Mill, Maryland, spend their days catching fistfuls of worms, going salamandering, and poking fox poop with a stick. Like many educators, their teachers believe kids need more time outdoors: “Hours of unstructured play in the natural world,” says The Atlantic, “allows [kids] to develop as organically as any other animal.” They learn creativity by observing the natural world and building their own imaginary ones. They learn to manage risk as “as they trip, stumble, fall, hurt, and right themselves.” And with time in nature, research shows, kids even learn to focus better. Nature, basically, “reduces stress.”

Psychologist Ari Hoffman, MA, LPC, tells Scary Mommy, “We live in a fabricated environment. This is not a bad thing as it results in central heating and A/C and little concern about the possibility of being attacked by a bear. However, the more we fabricate and try to control our environments, the more we discover that we have to also fabricate ways to approximate the elements of the unfabricated environment that contribute to our well-being.”

Basically, we have to go to the gym to strengthen our muscles, instead of hauling wood and climbing hills. We hit buttons on the microwave instead of hunting for food. “Being in the unfabricated environment of the wilderness places physical, emotional, and attention demands that can effectively address the negative elements of things like anxiety and ADHD,” Hoffman says.

Research has shown that a brief walk in the woods can lower anxiety and help ADHD. Moreover, “the basic act of living in the wilderness demands engagement,” Hoffman says. This engagement, and its real-world consequences, develops creativity, inventiveness, inner strength, and discipline.

Most important, as Louv tells Scary Mommy, is the sense of awe children experience: “For children, nature is one of the first windows into wonder. And for many children, that window is in danger of closing. Parents, grandparents, educators, and others who encourage children to experience nature, can ignite the senses, especially the sense of wonder.”

Any parent will tell you that their child needs these things, and desperately.

But there’s more than feel-good intangibles to outdoor time. Studies have found that children who engage in learning in outdoor classrooms and “other forms of experiential education” have significant gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math, Louv says in Orion.

“One 2005 study by the California Department of Education,” they cite, “found that students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent.” The same article quotes the Milwakee Journal-Sentinel report in 2006 that, “a 3-year-old can identify a cedar tree and a maple — even if she can’t tell you what color pants she’s wearing. And a 4-year-old can tell the difference between squirrel and rabbit tracks — even if he can’t yet read any of the writing on a map. Young children learn through the sounds, scents, and seasons of the outdoors.”

And it’s no coincidence that children who spend time in nature grow to be people who care deeply about the earth. Louv also notes that, “Studies show that almost to a person conservationists or environmentalists — whatever we want to call them — had some transcendent experience in nature when they were children.”

Mine came at age nine, in the Badlands of South Dakota, those striped rocky crags seemingly shaped by the hand of God himself extending from horizon to horizon. I am still happiest in the desert. My husband’s experience came to him in the mountains, where he still finds his peace. If we want our children to grow up to care about the world around, to solve the big problems facing our world — global warming, pollution — they first need to care. And to care, they need to get outside.

We need to think beyond the desks. Beyond the homework. Beyond the 25 minutes of recess — if they are lucky. Kids need to get dirty, to build forts, to ford creeks, to dam streams and turn over rocks. They need to discover animal poop and poke it with a stick: nothing can replace dissecting scat in the wild, not even dissecting owl pellets in the classroom.

“Our world,” Hoffman says, “would be a different place if children spent an hour a day in an unorganized setting in the outdoors.”

Children would be calmer. They’d care about the earth. They’d have a chance to recharge, to unplug, to destress — to forget the pressures of the modern school system. But more importantly, they’d develop that sense of wonder. As Einstein said, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”

Children can find wonder in a handful of worms, in a tuff of grass. At the top of that pine tree we’re afraid to let them climb, in that cold stream we’re worried will chill their feet. Maybe it’s time, as school starts, that we take them from their desks, set aside our fears, and drop them in the outdoors. We might be surprised at what happens.