Gotta’ Run: Pandemic getting kids outdoors again?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 31, 2021

The average American child between the ages of 8 and 12 spends 1,200 hours a year in front of screens, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. That’s about four hours a day of being sedentary and glassy-eyed. And while screens aren’t all bad, too much screen time can lead to less sleep, reading, physical activity and time outdoors. Screens, in other words, often rob children of the things that help them thrive and stay healthy.

Add to this the fact that even before the pandemic, youth sports participation has been declining, down from 45% to 38% since 2008. Organized sports provide the benefits of exercise and learning how to be part of a team. And according to the Aspen Institute, 30% of those kids who previously played are less interested now.

As the Zoom-classroom marathons drag on for kids amid questionable success, finding the outdoors again just as parents and grandparents did before, might be the solution to all of this.

If team sports continue to fade away, how will we get children moving again so that they can still enjoy the benefits of regular exercise? The answer, if we can capitalize on the recent promising trends, is to focus on the growing interest in outdoor activities.

Research by the Harris Poll in October found that 69% of Americans reported a heightened appreciation for outdoor spaces during the pandemic, while 65% said that they try to get outside the house as much as possible. Younger people too! A survey by Civic Science found that Gen Zers and Millennials (those between 13 and 34 years old) were the most likely to say that they planned to do more outdoor activities as a result of COVID-19 related shutdowns.

“If those numbers are right, it would be the most significant increase in people getting outside for their health and well-being that we’ve ever seen, which would be remarkable,” says Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation.

Were you one of those adults who decided to buy a bike this year or who tried regular walking, running, climbing or hiking as a way to beat the mental stress or added weight from staying at home more than ever? Bike and running stores struggled to keep up. This year, bicycling became the third most popular sport for kids (up from 16th), according to the Aspen Institute. Yellowstone saw more visitors in July 2020 than it did the previous year. State parks have seen a surge, too, as more families got outdoors but stayed closer to home to do so. Some parks even ballooned past capacity and had to turn people away or issue warnings and direct visitors to lesser-known sites.

According to numbers from L.L. Bean, sales of kayaks and family tents jumped 128% and 53% this year, respectively. Nationwide sales of camping supplies saw a 31-percent increase from the year before. Snowshoe sales at L.L. Bean were up 40%, and REI expanded its inventory of winter gear in anticipation of all-time highs in consumer demand.

Groups like the Outdoor Foundation and other organizations want to sustain the momentum. Aangeenbrug said, “When you think about what makes new habits, it’s to repeat and reinforce the experiences. If you couldn’t stand to be in the house one more minute, and you kept going outside and you kept having good experiences with your family and your kids and you did it enough, the likelihood is higher that it’s something that’s going to be a part of your life.” In other words, if your kids love getting outside to hike, run, camp or climb, make sure you continue to provide those opportunities even after the pandemic has subsided.

As adults, we should be interested in bringing even more people into the activities we tend to take for granted. By doing this, I think we not only can reverse the decline in team sports but foster more well-rounded and confident kids by building on the outdoors momentum of 2020. Youth leagues should start again soon, teaching life lessons and providing competition.

I’ve had a surge in requests on how to get kids started in running the right way. Our next beginning runners class starts on March 16. Attentive kids, 10 and up, can register for the class with a registered adult. .