Girl Outdoors Flickr RockjimfordMy five-month-old turns her head around on her neck, alarmingly far—like an owl—to see a television or computer screen; she cranes toward the pretty blue lights on our cell phones. We manage to keep it to a minimum now, but I often wonder how many hours of her life she’ll spend in front of screens of various sizes. What will that vast universe of mediated, pixilated reality do to her brain, her thinking, her relationship with the world?

Meanwhile, my father, who mostly lives in a cabin in the woods, asks: “does she spend enough time outside, looking at things that aren’t man-made?” I suppose he fears an urban babyhood, completely devoid of green. Luckily this is far from the reality in lush, wooded, seaside Seattle!

But my dad’s question is fair. As Carrie Sturrock reports in the Oregonian, the average American child age 8-18 spends more than 7 hours daily in front of screens—television, video games and cell phones, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study. Average screen-time is up by over an hour in just a few years.

The New York Times put it in blunter terms: if your kids are awake, they’re probably online. It means far less time spent outdoors. One big question is whether kids reared on virtual reality—cooped up indoors—grow into adults who care less about environmental protection and stewardship. Are we raising a generation of kids who just won’t care?

Beyond environmental consciousness, there are myriad reasons outdoor time is beneficial (and too much screen time may be detrimental). Kids who play outdoors get sick less, have better focus and concentration, seem to have better reading comprehension, are less likely to become overweight, and have fewer mental health problems like anxiety, stress, aggression, and depression to name just a few. As Sturrock reports, in an upcoming report called “Whole Child” the Kaiser Federation explores the link between sedentary lifestyles and increases in childhood obesity, ADHD, and depression. It also touches on studies that show children who spend regular time outdoors do better academically.

We are now beginning to wonder if technology is changing the way kids relate to one another and make friends. It’s not a huge leap to think that it’s changing the way they relate to the world around them. As Sir David Attenborough points out, kids who are online all the time know more about exotic, far-away places (tropical rain forests, for example) than they do their own backyards.

Knowledge like that isn’t all bad, of course. But photos online have a different effect than dirt and leaves and rocks in hand. Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe a rapidly-decreasing connection to the natural world.

Lots of research has shown that childhood experiences with nature were a key formative influence on today’s environmentalists. Time spent in natural environments during childhood was a common factor in the lives of individuals with a strong commitment to nature and the environment as adults. Love of nature and a positive environmental ethic grow out of children’s regular contact with and play in the natural world.

Across the US, efforts are underway to boost environmental literacy—in hopes that getting kids outside will make them happier and healthier—and better citizens. Sturrock writes:

Oregon’s lawmakers got so worried about it they passed legislation to create the No Oregon Child Left Inside task force in 2009 to develop an environmental literacy plan to help educators and parents get kids outside more. There’s also a push at the federal level to create a fund to support environmental education.

(Read about at least one federal effort here.)

One recent study shows that outdoor time helps kids’ eyesight, preventing myopia.

Myopia—also called nearsightedness or shortsightedness—might be a figurative and literal symptom of kids who don’t get outside enough. In Play Again, a documentary film about getting Portland-area kids “unplugged” and into the outdoors, Bill McKibben (founder of and all-around climate change thinker and activist) says, “television tells you 24 hours a day ‘You’re the most important thing in the world.’ And the natural world tells you just the opposite: ‘You’re a small part of something very large, something beautiful, something orderly, something meaningful, but you’re not the center of it. I think people after a little while if they get to spend some time in it find it deeply liberating to not have to be the center of everything.”

My daughter is admittedly the center of the universe right now. But I will see to it she has ample amounts of unstructured outdoor time as she gets older, and I hope she experiences the liberation that Bill McKibben’s talking about. Technology can be empowering, of course. Still, it is a privilege to have a sense of place—a home turf where the smells and the light and living things around you are familiar.  Call me old-fashioned (I guess I’m right in there with cutting-edge figures like David Attenborough!), but a sense of place seems awfully hard to come by online. All the more reason to “leave no child indoors!”

The question is…can policy get kids outdoors or is it up to parents alone? Or is it about how we design our cities? Is environmental literacy in schools enough? I don’t know.