Kick the kids outside

Playing outside ... essential for raising healthy kids.
Playing outside ... essential for raising healthy kids. 

Children spend so little time in outdoor activities it is little wonder so many are getting fat at a younger age, a visiting expert said yesterday.

The amount of time primary school children in the US spend on activities such as walking, bushwalking, camping, picnicking, gardening and boating halved between 1997 and 2003 while the time boys spent playing video games increased by 45 per cent.

Sandra Hofferth, professor of family science in the school of public health at the University of Maryland, said the decline in outdoor activities among children aged 6-12 was "eye-opening and frightening". She said children were also spending less time playing in a park or in their backyard or playing with toys, board games or puzzles, or doing "dress-ups" or "pretend" games because screen time was eating up more of their spare time.

"There's been a quadrupling of the number of overweight children in the US since the 1960s," she said. "A big part of the problem is that play has become more sedentary."

Professor Hofferth addressed the international conference of the Association for Time Use Research in Sydney. Time use researchers study special diaries family members keep to track how ordinary people spend every minute of their day.

The biggest change over the six years studied was the increase in boys' time on video games.

Professor Hofferth said television still took up the biggest chunk of children's free time, on average two hours a day, a figure little changed since 1997, despite the extra time spent on video games and computers.

"Parents often say their kids are over-stretched - involved in sport, music and other structured activities and they don't have time to do anything else," she said. "But they're watching 14-15 hours of TV a week - that's 30 per of their free time. While they watch TV, they tend to eat. And on top of that there's video games and computer time. Kick them outside. They don't have to be sitting in front of a screen."

The biggest change over the six years studied was the increase in boys' time on video games from an average of two hours and 38 minutes a week to three hours and 49 minutes. This average included boys who played no video games. Girls increased their time by only four minutes to 47 minutes a week.

As well, boys spent more than an hour and 20 minutes on computers (with only 10 minutes of that for study purposes). Over the period the proportions of young children using computers weekly rose dramatically from around 14 per cent to 30 per cent.

Outdoor time spent walking, camping and gardening has dwindled from 30 to 16 minutes a week for boys, and only 8 per cent of boy ever do these activities, compared to 16 per cent in the late '90s, she said.

At the same time, US children were reading about half an hour more a week, perhaps due to the "Harry Potter effect", she said. But reading took up only one hour and 36 minutes a week.

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