The average American child spends between four and nine hours per day glued to a screen. The effect of childhood screen use is shaping culture and not toward virtue, as can be seen in public schools across the country.
A distracted adult may offer a screen as a babysitter or to pacify a child who is throwing a tantrum. A child taught to handle his emotions this way is not being taught how to develop self-control, an essential skill taught in childhood. The damaging effects of children brought under the spell of mind-numbing passivity, adult content, advertising, and misleading information through unfiltered and unsupervised watch time are infinite.
The issue becomes that the screen is not used one time in a moment of desperation. Four hours a day is not a fluke. It’s a lifestyle choice. The question is how is this daily habitual usage forming the hearts, minds, and souls of our nation’s children? Habits form us.
This issue exposes our lack of vision for what a full and rich childhood could look like. What are the habits a child should be cultivating? How should a child spend his free time? How does this help him become a wholly formed adult? Does every part of life educate a child?
Adults should honor the personhood of the child by helping him learn self-control and free thinking. They should lead a child into habits that will teach him to know what is true, pursue what is good, and be moved by the beautiful. And where can we get such an education? Why, it’s all around. We only need the eyes to see.
The natural world is the perfect teacher, and a child robbed of it won’t grow up whole. The natural world is essential to a normative and healthy childhood. Without it, children won’t develop a full understanding of law and order or truth and beauty.
Consider the following scene: A child spots a brilliant red male cardinal perched on the backyard fence and delights to see another cardinal alight to join him. The second cardinal is brown so the child exclaims, “Oh! Look over there! The girl cardinal!” This child understands the maleness and femaleness of things. That is part of God’s created design, and it is proclaimed in birds, bees, flowers, and trees. You can’t escape talking about the “male” and “female” order of things. Nothing is confused. The knowledge of truth in the created order offers freedom. It is a part of the antidote to the current social contagion. (Another part is the family.)
Time Outside Is Essential for Development
Children who spend time outdoors have the opportunity to think freely, to run and skip and climb, and to develop a relationship with the natural world that can be taken with them into adulthood.
An introduction to the natural world early in life pulls the child outside of himself and shows him worlds upon worlds that will take a lifetime to know and explore. This self-forgetfulness is a healthy habit of the mind to cultivate and can only be taught by getting in touch with real things and real people. Opening the door to the discovery of rocks and plants, animals and birds, insects and fish — the list goes on — allows a child to think about lovely things.
Once outside, a child can run and jump, climb and dig, and move his body through space by testing his full range of motion, speed, and strength. These activities can’t be done indoors. Children given the gift of movement will develop an understanding of how things work. This knowledge can’t be found in a textbook or taught in a science lab. Time for experimentation and free play offers the child the gift of a relationship with the natural world.
If parents can protect their children’s free time and make an introduction to “The Wide World,” children will emerge into adulthood armed with truth, goodness, and beauty. These children can bring real experiences about how the world is into their communities and work. This strengthens society and reclaims truth.
Creating an Outdoor Lifestyle
In a world where organized sports and children’s programs vie for attention, parenting becomes a constant game of whack-a-mole. Yet, resilient parents who seek to provide their children with a fulfilling life are willing to go to great lengths. They are determined to offer their little ones a taste of the good life. Here are some ideas to inspire you to lead the children in your life outdoors regularly.
Meals outside: Taking a picnic in the backyard or using the patio furniture as a rule when the weather is fair gets the whole family outside regularly.
Parents and children outdoors together: Don’t just send children outside. Go with them. Find a way to bring your work outside by using paper, a pencil, or a book instead of occupying yourself with a screen while children play. Or better yet, spend 10 minutes together hunting for bird nests or finding out how the ants are marching on.
Play a game: A nature challenge is a great way to inspire children who get “bored” and are new to getting outside. They just need a few inspiring ideas to get them started on the right path.
Make a day of it: Living in the city or an uninspiring suburb can make it feel like an outdoor life is an unrealistic dream. Consider planning a day or an afternoon to head to a nature preserve, park, or hiking trail. Packing a snack and water makes the adventure sustainable. Choose something from the nature challenge to look out for while you are out.
Family walk: Walking around the block is the easiest way to get outside together habitually. Finding trees, flowers, birds, and bugs to watch or “check on” each day will draw you outside consistently.
Establishing Boundaries with Screens
The pull of screens will compete with the outdoor life of children. Setting strong boundaries to establish good habits and offering inspiring ideas will set children on the right track. If screens have been used as a reward for chores or homework, think through what outdoor substitute to offer — perhaps help a child build a fort out of branches or set up the tent or hammock in the backyard.
Computers and devices are helpful tools that are often used for homework or research, but they are a pretty unrelenting master. Give time limits and set a timer for yourself so you are reminded about the time limit and then stick to it.
Establishing new habits takes thoughtful planning, but the rewards are incalculable. Children who are offered the gift of nature early in life grow to understand the world in which they live in an embodied way.