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Dr. Jenna Glover suggests making backyard camping a familial tradition, which is a boon to mental health. Photo courtesy of Generation Wild
Health

How 20 Minutes of Playtime Can Help Your Child’s Mental Health

This summer, Colorado’s Generation Wild listed 20 accessible ideas for outdoor activities. The goal? Reduce screen time and anxiety.

The 30-second ad opens on a prairie house in misty daylight. Ominous music plays as a burly monster breaks a floor lamp in pursuit of a girl through a family room. Cut to outside: The child runs from the house and hides behind a tall tree, breathless. The monster steps from the porch—and pauses. Dazed in a state of magical transformation, the beast collapses … and turns into the girl’s younger sister.

“Technology does turn your kids into monsters,” Jackie Miller says, laughing. The interim executive director of Great Outdoors Colorado wanted to capture the lash-out kids might display when taking away their time with computers, TVs, iPads, etc. “The monster idea we have for this campaign,” she says, “is built around the parent experience with kids.” There’s levity in her voice as she mentions this but cites how worrisome it was for parents with their kids’ overuse of screen time during the first pandemic year.

The commercial from Generation Wild, a program created by Great Outdoors Colorado in 2017 to encourage families to spend more time outside, encapsulates the world-building imagination playtime can have. The importance of fostering such creativity in children became especially clear in the past 18 months, as the pandemic isolated friends from each other.

“It was a struggle,” says Jackie Miller, interim executive director of Great Outdoors Colorado. Kids were kicked out of their daily routines, separated from their friends and social networks. … I saw the impact in my own children. And for my family, the greatest solace we found was outside. Friends and the outdoors are the ultimate stress-reliever.”

That’s why this summer, Generation Wild launched a campaign focused on engaging activities called, “Just 20 Minutes Outside.” The list of 20 ideas, Miller says, are “very digestible” and include impromptu activities that can be done in the yard or nearest park. From painting zombie faces on leaves to grabbing flashlights at dusk and playing tag (at a distance) with neighbors, the ideas highlight how far one’s imagination can go with simple, on-hand objects. Want to throw a mud party? Just grab some Tupperware, dirt, and add water.

Other Generation Wild quick fixes for the kiddos might include:

Working with Children’s Hospital of Colorado, Miller learned that an overabundance of screen time can lead to isolation, depression, and attention issues. One study even detailed how its overuse later led to psychiatric disorders in adulthood. “When they spend too much time on the screen, you lose them—I lose them, all together. They don’t communicate when you ask them questions. They don’t engage,” she says. “And then when you take them off the screen, they get angry. Their moods are harsher. It’s an addiction.”

During the last 18 months of the pandemic, Miller noticed anxiety manifesting in her own children. She watched as they became lethargic and worried with an overarching sense of dread. They experienced a complete lack of motivation.

She’s not alone. To better understand the mental detriment that kids faced during the pandemic, Generation Wild worked with Dr. Jenna Glover at Children’s Hospital of Colorado. “The scariest thing I’ve seen with kids is a real loss of hope about the future and the current state of our world,” says Glover, a childhood psychologist of 17 years. “As a result, I’ve seen an increase of kids thinking about suicide and attempting suicide. That’s the starkest thing: More kids are losing hope and thinking there’s no solution to the problems they face.”

These thoughts, she says, are starting to increase in kids as young as 8, with a primary increase in the tweens (ages 11 and 12). Last winter, suicide attempts were up 39 percent in youths aged 12 to 17, according to the CDC, and up 50 percent among girls. And compared to spring 2020, Children’s Hospital of Colorado saw a 70 percent rate increase in children this April—50 percent, of which, were attributed to poor mental health.

Such incidents lessened over the summer—as they have historically once kids are out of school—but she believes part of that could be attributed to the rollout of vaccines and a slight return to pre-pandemic socializing. However, as school begins this fall, she expects the suicide numbers to increase again. It’s also a concern as the Delta variant raises some uncertainties with a new school year and whether hybrid learning may return.

“Screen time is a large contributor, being plugged in so often,” Glover says. “But it’s not screens that are the problem—it’s what they take away from.” She, like many other experts, points at the necessity of being outdoors and having face-to-face interactions.

It’s not about being “anti-technology,” says Miller, but rather pushing the need for a balance with outdoor activity. In turn, studies show small amounts of consistent playtime led to better social health and improved academic results in children. The reason? Outdoor play helps activate naturally occurring norepinephrine in the body, which encourages more energy in bodies, and helps with focus.

But not everything relies on the outdoors. Realistic commitments to “screen-free zones” in dining rooms or bedrooms, says Glover, can also make a difference. Behaviors are often passed down to children from their parents, if not modeled by them. Some of her child patients mention how their parents pay more attention to their screens than them. “Really, it’s a family culture. You can’t ask your kids to do one thing, and then you do another.”

So, starting with bite-size goals are likelier to succeed in the long run, she says. And, hopefully, keep the monsters at bay.

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