Anyone who spends time in natural environments also enjoys a lower rate of depression, better memory, and improved blood pressure. Studies conclude that time outside improves brain function and creativity, and that taking breaks throughout the school or work day is critical to success. In fact, children’s emotional well-being relies on time spent outdoors. Unfortunately, recess time has been reduced nationwide, even as rates of ADHD, depression, and obesity climb. Children are spending, on average, half the time outside that their parents’ generation did.
To help return kids to more natural, healthy routines, a growing number of parents, educators, and therapists are revisiting the value of children spending time outside on a daily basis. Nowhere is that effort more apparent than in the 1000 Hours Outside movement, which seeks to get kids outside for an average of 20 hours each week — or close to three hours daily.
Is that even possible when we schedule extracurricular activities, tutors, and parents work multiple jobs and suffer long commutes? Some families think so, and say it might be time for you to think so, too. Consider this: In 2018, The American Heart Association estimated that children were spending more than seven hours a day looking at screens, an equivalent to about 2,500 hours a year. If that many hours are available for screen time, surely we can figure out a way to allocate the same amount of time for outdoor play.
Hardly a New Concept
Ginny Yurich, a not-so-average married mother of five, founded 1000 Hours Outside as a way to share with teachers, caregivers, and parents the concept of devoting time to truly be outdoors with children. Yurich’s website offers outdoor family guides and a blog chronicling research and resources for people trying to pull off more time in nature. Yurich has now become an influencer, with followers around the globe advocating for how the power of nature can instill a greater sense of responsibility, respect for the outdoors, longer attention spans, and memories in children that can’t be had from a video game.
Yurich isn’t the only one who believes time outside is critical for child development. Aethena Enzer-Mahler, a child therapist in private practice, consults with schools about social behavior needs and further emphasizes the importance of time spent in nature.
“There’s a really clear overlap between being outside and that part of your brain that develops through unstructured play,” Enzer-Mahler says. “There’s the opportunity to climb a tree, which utilizes executive functioning skills like motor planning, organizing, managing the physical, managing fear, concentrating, and ultimately using the skills we really want kids to naturally have when they sit and concentrate in a classroom and do schoolwork.
“In schools, we start asking kids to sit for most of the day when they’re six, which is not appropriate for that age,” Enzer-Mahler continues. “They should still be moving more than they’re sitting for the sake of cognitive and social development. Schools should have recess multiple times a day. But you can’t test a kid on how much they’ve learned at recess.”
Schools might be limited in what they can do to help children get outdoors, but what you can do is to start taking steps at home to give your children more time in the outdoors, while they — and you — reap all the benefits. No test required.
Make a Schedule
“It’s actually really hard to get kids outside,” Yurich says. “The backyard works great, especially if there are neighborhood kids around, but there aren’t neighborhood kids around so much anymore. So we have to schedule outdoor time first. It has to be a top priority.”
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) created a Green Hour Program designed to help parents, caregivers, schools, and camps ensure an hour of outside time every day for every child. This is a great start on the 1000 Hours Outside challenge, and can be as simple as scheduling activities as soon as a young person returns from school or finishes breakfast on a weekend.
One of the NWF’s suggestions is to rethink the toys children are given, and make sure what gets wrapped up for holidays or birthdays is something meant to be enjoyed outside. A bicycle, a sand table, a kit for building bird or bat houses, a fairy garden, play camping equipment, all-terrain remote-control toys, a magnifying glass, or outdoor explorer books are all great ideas for gifts that kids will want to use outside. If one hour of time outside comes with the ability to use one of these gadgets, children are less likely to moan and groan about missing a television show, and more likely to be excited about spending more time in nature.
And don’t underestimate the benefits of unstructured time outside; it’s been shown to be integral to a healthy overall lifestyle. Stop at a park instead of driving past, head to a local nature trail to just play around and explore, or simply set up some outdoor play areas in your yard to incorporate one hour a day outside into everyone’s lifestyle.
Turn Time Off Into Time Outside
Admittedly, Yurich and her husband have the luxury of him working full-time and her focusing more singularly on things such as homeschooling and getting her kids outside for a base threshold of 1,000 hours each year. But even for the Yurichs, there are periods when the outside time just won’t work. Kids get sick, and parents get busy. Sometimes, the weather is just lousy. But even if outdoor time can’t be scheduled seven days a week, it can be prioritized, and the hours increased by planning things such as vacations or full days outside.
“We schedule our summer vacations around camping trips and hiking,” Yurich says. “Anytime you start, at whatever age, it’s beneficial to children. Some people might say, ‘1,000 hours, that’s too much.’ But the point is saying, ‘Well, if we’re going to do this developmentally, and if it’s good for child development, what’s our plan?’”
Outdoor vacations involving camping, boating, or hiking are significantly less expensive than hotels, and they help you continuously log hours while your family is having fun. Even a weekend camping trip generates 48 hours of outdoor time, which is more than two weeks’ worth of outside time condensed into two days of amazing memories for your family.
You can also consider time off as free time on a more daily basis. Explore nature programs available in your area each week. Just about any neighborhood or town has some variety of wildlife center, botanical garden, community garden, park, playground, or wild area to explore. Making leaf prints, tracking footprints on paths, identifying trees, and learning about bird songs are all outdoor activities that can be entertaining for children, and none of these activities has to be an all-day adventure.
Rethink Indoor Activities
Many of the activities you and your children already do can easily be moved to the outside world. It just takes a little time and creativity for it to gain momentum. At the Center School’s preschool program in Greenfield, Massachusetts, for example, educators have incorporated nature concepts into the school’s curriculum so that learning can happen outside and inside. (Learn more about outdoor educational systems in “Explore the Benefits of Nature-Based Education.”)
“When I got here, preschoolers were spending 30 to 60 minutes outside a day,” says Kiah Tinkham, who’s been the director of the Center School’s preschool program since 2016. “My coworker Amy Wright, who started the program, and I decided to up that to 2 to 3 hours a day.” To do this kind of work, Tinkham and her Center School coworkers had to rethink what constituted an indoor as opposed to an outdoor activity.
“We just started to do things outdoors that people typically assume happen indoors,” Tinkham says. “That could be eating snacks or reading books, writing or painting, or going to the bathroom. We’ve even done rest time outside. These are all things most people today assume you have to have a building for. That was a big part; a lot of the reason kids spend time inside is that there are all these things they have to do that people assume have to be done inside.”
Consider reading a book with a child outside under a tree, or on a park bench instead of a living room couch. If your child gravitates toward their toys, turn the backyard into the ultimate imaginary world for playtime. Spread out a blanket and have meals outside, or, if you have to run errands during the day, pack food up and take your kids on an adventure to a new nature spot for lunch. Just be sure to bundle up properly in inclement or cold weather.
Watch the Transformation
Tinkham has watched her students transform by her sticking to scheduled outdoor time and unstructured play and exploration. “Being outside just took away all that arguing over materials or having their behavior regulated,” she says. “Experiences like this build camaraderie, and the littlest kids benefit from that for sure.”
Whether a neighborhood walk around the block after dinner, going sledding down a nearby hill, or camping in the backyard, getting children outside does more than reconnect them with nature — it also offers a chance to reconnect them with you. For the family, committing to 1,000 hours of outdoor time each year is just that: a commitment that requires everyone to be on board. Take some time to talk with your kids, partner, other family members, and friends to create a communal pledge to reach this goal for the health and benefit of not just the little ones, but everyone. And remember: Any step toward more outside time is beneficial!
Breaking Down the Numbers
One thousand hours of outdoor time each year sounds daunting, and it’s a challenge in today’s world of technology. However, looking at the numbers a little differently can help put the goal into perspective and break it down into manageable pieces across the year, so you can plan your outdoor time accordingly.
1,000 hours in one year is:
About 84 hours each month
About 20 hours each week
About 3 hours each day
You can choose how to structure 1,000 hours across a year, sometimes dividing those hours into different chunks of time. For example, some people may find thinking about a daily allotment is easier than a weekly or monthly allotment; or, during some months, thinking in monthly terms is easier than weekly or daily. Here are some examples of what each portion of time could look like.
Daily: Have a 30-minute breakfast outside before school and work. After the kids are home, take the family outside for dinner for 30 minutes. And divide the last two hours between work and play. If your kids have homework, encourage them to work on it outside. Or, if it’s playtime, take the fun to a local park, neighborhood playground, or backyard.
Weekly: Maybe you can only get an hour of daily outdoor activity during the week. During the weekend, that leaves 15 hours. Look up some nature programs that will take up a few hours of time. Or, make a family commitment to have all meals outside during the weekend. Have a weekend trip coming up? Find ways to bring that outdoors. Or, if you have chores to do, leave the outdoor tasks until the weekend, when the family can garden, wash a car, or take a walk together in between errands.
Monthly: You might find it easiest to take time outside in larger chunks. If you have a vacation coming up, plan to make it outside. Even four days of camping will provide 96 hours of time in nature, more than enough to meet your monthly goal.
Nicole Caldwell is an author, editor, and owner of Better Farm, a sustainability campus, organic farm, and animal sanctuary in Redwood, New York. Follow her adventures on Instagram @NicoleMCaldwell.