With smartphones, tablets, endless TV and the coolest gadgets in the world at their fingertips, it’s easy for kids to forget the outside world exists. So we need to show it to them!
I think Sonny was around six months old when I first saw him swipe the screen on my iPhone. It seemed quite cute at first, but then it dawned on me this was my fault. He watches me play with my phone so much that he thinks it’s cool, so he wants to do it. And rather than being cute, it’s actually quite terrifying.
I read recently that three quarters of UK kids spend less time outdoors than prison inmates, which is both shocking and heartbreaking at the same time. This stat is taken from a 2016 government survey that revealed 74% of children spend less than 60 minutes playing outside every day, which – when you think about it – isn’t that surprising at all.
We all lead busy lives, and with work commitments, nursery drop-offs, school-runs, meal times, bath times and bed times to squeeze into every day, it’s easy to see how outdoor trips get neglected. It’s usually just easier not to take kids outside.
Another recent report from the National Trust talks about how a ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ is creating all sorts of hidden issues for our kids, such as diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, and even the loss of basic everyday abilities like assessing danger when crossing the road.
How have we let this happen?
I was quite proud of myself for resisting smartphones until 2014. Until then I was happy to use my old Samsung brick to send texts, check the football scores, and (god forbid) even make the occasional phone call. Then I got an iPhone and everything changed.
I quickly became hooked on Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube; dedicated hours to playing every mobile game I could fit on my phone; subscribed to dozens of podcasts; fell in love with Spotfiy and Apple Music; and remember getting unreasonably angry when my BBC live-stream of Wimbledon cut out when I went through a train tunnel. I was borderline obsessed.
Fast-forward a couple of years and although I make a conscious effort to spend less time gawping at my phone screen, I still do it more than I should. Writing this blog doesn’t help, neither does the fact I work for a mobile app company, and as a result Sonny has become fascinated by what I’m doing when I sit next to him, swiping away in a trance. And my actions are totally to blame.
TV on tap
Remember when TV was just something you watched in the evenings, usually at a set time like 5.35 for Neighbours or 7.30pm when Coronation Street or Eastenders came on? If I was lucky, my parents sometimes even let me stay up until 10.30pm to watch Match of the Day on a Saturday night!
But now you can’t get away from TV. I can’t remember the last time I sat down to watch a TV show at its actual broadcast time. At home over the past couple of years we’ve subscribed to Virgin, Now TV, Netflix and Amazon Prime, and as a result we can watch whatever we want, whenever we want, wherever we are in the world.
If Sonny kicks off I know I can calm him down by putting on Peppa Pig, or Thomas the Tank Engine, or even some random YouTube video compilation of steam trains in California. Whatever we show him, he just sits their wide-eyed and transfixed. He’s even worked out how to use the TV remote. And he’s only 19 months old!
On average, Britain’s children now watch more than 17 hours of TV a week. That’s almost two-and-a-half hours per day, every single day of the year. How depressing is that?
Gadgets, gadgets, gadgets
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have an endless arsenal of toys to play with as a kid. When I got bored of my matchbox cars, Lego bricks and second-hand Star Wars figures, I usually wandered outside to kick a football or climb a tree. But Sonny doesn’t need to – he’s got too much to entertain him indoors.
Getting sent to your room as a kid these days is more a treat than a punishment, because once you’re in there you can either crash about playing with toys that flash, beep and interact with you; or enter some kind of online fantasy world on your smartphone, tablet, laptop or console.
As well as the TV addiction, British children are also spending more than 20 hours a week online, mostly on social networking sites. As a generation of parents who grew up with no internet in our homes until we were teenagers, we should all know better.
The solution: get kids outdoors
It’s too convenient an excuse to think that your kid prefers being indoors, and that they like watching TV more than building a den in the garden. That’s just you convincing yourself to take the easy option. I’ve done it myself, and although it makes life simple in the short-term it’s a horrible long-term solution.
Do you remember the days you spent inside watching TV or playing on your Sega Mega Drive as a kid? Or do you remember those trips to the beach, those family camping trips, those rivers and lakes you swam in?
I’ve always been outdoorsy, but that’s down to my parents. Sure they let me play indoors and lounge around watching cartoons, but they never stopped encouraging me to get outside and try new things. Whether that was walking up mountains, learning to kayak, taking skiing lessons, building campfires, playing football in the park, walking the dog in the countryside, or simply putting out food for the birds in our garden, I was constantly outside.
Sometimes I resented it, particularly when I was a lazy and grumpy teenager, but now I’m older I appreciate it so much because it gave me a love for nature and a valuable set of life skills that have allowed me to do so many great things as an adult.
I look at my little boy now, just 19 months old but so full of life and optimism, and I know I have a huge responsibility to let him learn all about nature and the joys the outdoors can bring. Unlike me he may hate hiking, or canoeing, or playing football, or riding bikes, but if he doesn’t try them now he may never get the chance to find out.
So next time your kid stands by the back door and asks to play in the garden, don’t take the easy option and switch on CBeebies. There’s a whole world out there waiting for them. And they’ll probably love it a lot more than you realise.
Here are two great campaigns with ideas to get kids outdoors:
National Trust: 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾
The RSPB: Wild Challenge