Rachel’s fondest childhood memory is of her treehouse. Her father built it for her ninth birthday, and it nestled in a maple tree in her backyard.
“It had not just one, but two, rooms — and a really great rope ladder,” she tells me. “It was like having a little house of my own, close enough to home, but far away enough for it to feel entirely my own.”
She kept books and a boombox in that treehouse, wiling away the hours reading and listening to music. Occasionally, neighborhood kids would drop by to hold “secret” club meetings.
“That treehouse was basically the beacon of my childhood,” she says. “When I think of the moments of pure happiness and comfort, they all revolve around that house.”
Then, Rachel grew up, met a man named Tom who she would eventually marry, and had twin boys — Evan and Hunter. But the memory of that treehouse never faded, and her fantasy of one day building one for her kids sprung to life. In fact, she picked a suburban Chicago home with a backyard and a sturdy oak tree when she moved just so she could build one.
With the help of an architect friend, she designed a beautiful treehouse, complete with built-in bookshelves, furniture and a chalkboard wall her sons could draw and scribble on. Her plan was to have it put up in time for her twins’ eighth birthday.
When she revealed the treehouse, they were strangely subdued.
They were appreciative — Rachel raised them to be considerate and polite — but she could tell they were disappointed. Evan and Hunter made no move to check out the treehouse. Instead they sat on the sofa with their iPads to use up their new iTunes gift cards.
“Come on, guys,” Rachel cajoled them. “Let’s check out the treehouse.”
Grudgingly, they trooped out and settled on the floor of the treehouse — iPads still in hand.
Within a minute, their brows furrowed. “Mom — we’re too far away from the Wi-Fi,” they wailed. They wanted to go back indoors to get a better signal.
Rachel was exasperated and frustrated. She had gone to effort and cost to give her sons a thoughtful, generous gift. But she didn’t bank on a major generational shift: kids these days simply don’t play outside as much anymore. Almost without noticing, Evan and Hunter had become so-called “indoor kids,” who would rather stay inside, watch TV, read e-books or even do chores within Wi-Fi range — anything but go outside and play.
Rachel had seen kids of other parents wearing ironic “Indoor Person” t-shirts, which became popular when the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books became a phenomenon.
In the Diary books, the main character Greg is a young boy and self-confessed “indoor person” who’d rather play video games than go swimming or climb a tree.
Rachel thought the Indoor Person t-shirts were funny, until she realized her kids were indoor people themselves. Left to their own devices, Evan and Hunter prefer to stay curled up on the sofa, reading books, playing games or just fiddling around with the family iPads.
Rachel once even framed this behavior as positive. “I like that they like to read a lot,” she says. “And at school they’re always emphasizing being conversant with technology as a key to success later in life.”
Now, though, she’s a little disturbed by their preference to stay indoors, and can’t help but wonder what the long-term implications are.
“As a parent, you’re always worrying about how all this technology is shaping their minds and bodies,” she says. “Now I’m wondering how their lack of interest in being outdoors will play out later in their lives.”
Rachel isn’t the only parent wondering. Kids today would rather watch movies, play video games and even do their homework or chores than go outside and play, according to British non-profit JCB Kids, who conducted a study as part of its Fresh Air Campaign last year.
Today’s kids go outside for just over an hour each weekday, and fewer than five hours on weekends — a marked contrast to generations growing up in the 1970s and 80s, who racked up more than two hours of outside play each weekday, and enjoyed a whopping nine hours of outdoor play on the weekends.
Kids today get fewer benefits of outdoor, unstructured play as a result. Physical activity improves learning, concentration, self-esteem, creativity and social skills, and is especially important in the first three years of life, when brains are rapidly developing.
Kids develop stronger immune systems as a result of playing outdoors, as well as boost their levels of vitamin D, according to the U.S. government’s Head Start program.
Once Rachel realized she had a pair of indoor kids, she felt alarm and a sense of failure as a parent. She and her husband enrolled their twin sons in outdoor activities like soccer, but it didn’t encourage their children to value outdoor or active play time. Rachel set about trying to remedy the situation.
First, she simply began banning devices and sent the kids outside when the weather was nice. But Evan and Hunter weren’t into it. They balked at first. Realizing she was serious, they then shifted gears and complied, although without any real enthusiasm.
“They just go outside and maybe ride their bikes around the block a few times, or sort of just sit around outdoors, killing time. They weren’t really playing,” she says. “They were always waiting by the door ready to go back inside by the time the hour was up. It was almost more depressing than letting them stay indoors.”
Rachel then switched to a different tack. “I started planning out activities for the kids, for us to do together, that involved going outside,” she says.
These activities involved everything from family hiking on the weekends to trying to serve meals on the patio outdoors. “It was basically the ‘add outdoors’ approach,” Rachel notes. “Like, ‘Dinner and a movie? Let’s see if we can find a way to do it outdoors!'”
Evan and Hunter were good-natured about Mom’s new “phase,” as they called it, but patiently waited to go back to the way things used to be.
One day, Rachel made her kids go outside and watched as her twins sat underneath the treehouse, talking together and killing time until they were let back in.
It was a marked contrast, Rachel realized, to how she and her childhood friends played outdoors. “If you gave me a box of chalk and an hour outside, I’d have drawn the world’s most complex hopscotch game or some crazy mural,” she says. “If I had others to play with, we’d have organized some crazy game of Red Rover, or maybe we’d go exploring in the neighborhood. I hate to say it, but my kids — and any other kids in the neighborhood, to be fair — don’t show that level of creativity or independence when left to their own devices, no pun intended. And that made me sad.”
It’s as if the kids didn’t even know how to play anymore.
Rachel then realized the limitations of the “just add outdoors” approach. “I then realized that what I wanted for them was much more complex than just ticking off a box that said ‘Outdoor Time,'” she says. “I wanted them to have a level of independence and creativity, and a relationship to nature. And those are harder things to foster than just getting them to play outside for an hour a day.”
Rachel shouldn’t be so hard on herself as a parent. In some ways, she’s up against significant changes that restructured the relationship between children, play and nature in general.
Rachel assumed, for example, that her kids’ school gave enough time to play during the school day, but a closer examination of her sons’ schedule revealed that wasn’t true. “They get about 20 minutes of recess a day,” she reports. “Honestly, sometimes it takes 20 minutes just to get the kids bundled up and lined up to go outside,” she says.
Rachel’s school may be lucky just to have recess at all. According to Clemson University, the number of schools with recess has steadily decreased since 1989, when 96 percent of all elementary schools had built-in play time. Since then, recess time decreased by an average of 50 minutes a week.
The decrease in recess, many say, is from the rise of standardized testing — teachers say they simply need more time to prepare kids for their tests required by the No Child Left Behind initiative. Activities like gym and recess often suffer as a result.
Educators, too, see recess as a potential liability, as a time when kids can get into trouble, be bullied or otherwise cause chaos. So they limit this time, seeing it as a disciplinary issue.
For many childhood experts, though, this simply isn’t enough time to be outside or just active.
Kids, they argue, need more time to move around during school. If kids can’t move around, they get bored and tired — and when they get bored, they can’t pay attention and exercise enough self-control in class to concentrate on learning, according to the New York Times.
Breaks for physical activity also help kids remember what they learn in the day. If you want kids to focus and remember what they’re learning, they need to be able to move.
Beyond the classroom, the demands of parenting have changed as well.
“I have noticed a certain level of judgment if you let your kids wander and play for hours at a time, especially among the more ‘helicopter’ parents in our neighborhood,” Rachel says. “They see it as being lazy in your duty to constantly shape, mold and guide your child.”
As a result, there aren’t many kids for Evan and Hunter to play with outside. “And you can’t simply just knock on someone’s door and ask if So-and-So can play anymore. There’s a lot less social trust out there,” Rachel points out. “Maybe there’s a good reason for that, but it’s still a bit sad and disturbing.”
Of course, tech plays at least a partial role in replacing unstructured outdoor play as the preferred activity for kids. It’s well-documented how much time kids spend staring at screens now. They spend an average of seven hours a day on screen-based entertainment media, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That usually comes at the cost of physical activity and outdoor playtime.
Parents like Rachel face a battle to recalibrate the relationship between their children, their playtime and the outdoors. After some thought and discussion with her husband, Rachel realized that they needed to model the change they wished to see in their kids.
Rachel and Tom did an audit of their own time and behavior and realized just how sedentary they were. “We were indoor people ourselves,” Rachel says. They gave lip service to the idea and importance of outdoor play and nature, and while they did do some outdoor activities as a family, it didn’t ring true with their kids. Evan and Hunter were just imitating their tech-connected parents, who were equally attached to their iPads, iPhones and devices.
Rachel and her husband decided then to rebalance their own relationship to play, leisure and nature.
They both realized they wanted to play more — to have more time to enjoy sports, hobbies and other leisure activities. They made a concerted effort not to work at home in the evenings — “No more ‘just one more e-mail,” Rachel says — and instead spent their evenings playing games outdoors and taking family walks together. Instead of hitting the gym all the time, they would try running outdoors at least once a week.
Then, they tackled the nature part of the equation. Rachel lives in an area rich with farms, and they made it a point to explore this aspect of the region, becoming curious about who was growing their local produce.
They spent more time at their local parks, partaking in anything from sledding and skiing in the winter to kayaking and boating in the summer. They took family vacations in places near beaches and mountains instead of typical city visits. Rachel even started a windowsill garden to grow their own herbs, and enlisted her sons.
“We sort of ‘gamified’ gardening and treated it like an experiment or a game, seeing who could grow the tallest basil or the most cherry tomatoes,” she said. “The kids were actually very into the process of growing things.” Rachel plans on tackling a garden in the yard next year, and hopes to grow some vegetables with Evan and Hunter.
In the end, the biggest catalyst to shift Evan and Hunter’s relationship to play and nature was both unexpected and time-honored traditional. Both boys began campaigning for a family dog. Rachel balked at the high-maintenance addition to the family, but then quickly saw her opportunity to change her kids from “indoor people” to something else.
She would get them their dog, she said — but only if the boys agreed to take the dog out for walks and play every day, without fail, rain or shine. It was a big responsibility, and she would put the onus on them.
A dog, she impressed upon them, was an outdoor pet — it would suffer if it didn’t get enough play, exercise and fresh air every day. Were they up for that challenge and responsibility?
Eager for the dog, they said yes.
A few weeks later, Rachel and her boys went to the animal rescue shelter, picked out a friendly, energetic mutt and christened him Murphy. They took the dog home, and immediately Rachel had her boys take Murphy for a walk. “They were outside for nearly two hours, just trying to get the dog around the block,” Rachel reports.
Since getting Murphy in the fall, her boys have gotten the hang of dog-rearing and log some outdoor active time every day, just playing ball with Murphy outside. And maybe because they’re already outside, Rachel reports her sons are staying outdoors more after walking Murphy — riding bikes, for instance, or just exploring the neighborhood.
And much to Rachel’s satisfaction, Evan and Hunter have even taken to the treehouse finally. They initially scampered up there after getting caught in the rain while playing with Murphy outside, but they learned their little retreat comes with its own advantages.
“They’ve hit that ‘Mom, leave us alone’ stage,” Rachel says. “So the treehouse is the perfect place for them to have their own space.”
But she doesn’t mind. It gives them the space to learn independence and self-reliance, to appreciate life outside a touchscreen — and a place to dream, play and imagine — which is what childhood is all about. ♦