In today’s world, children are often “plugged in.” In a 2017 state survey, 58 percent of Alaska high school students reported that they spend three or more hours a day watching television, playing video games, or using a computer or electronic device for something other than school work. Actual face-to-face interaction is becoming less common, and Facebook and FaceTime more so. Taking children outside and to the parks, for long or short trips, can teach them the value of “unplugging” at a young age and positively affect their long-term physical and emotional well-being.
With the increased use of social media, television and video games, time in nature is becoming less common — so much so that author Richard Louv has coined the term “nature deficit disorder” and talks about this phenomenon in his book called “Last Child in the Woods.” In his first chapter, Louv writes “As one scientist puts it, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may all very well need contact with nature.” It opens up a whole new world, he explains in his book, that children cannot get from time in front of their electronic device.
Matt and Erin Callahan live in Anchorage and both work full-time. They plan their life around getting their children outside on trips of all lengths, keeping these outings varied and incorporating physical activity and learning. Their family recently went to Cordova on the Alaska ferry with their son Liam, 9. Matt said they chose this form of transportation so they could stay outside and learn about the outdoors, including glaciers, whales, and porpoises.
“We prefer a slower pace and more education,” he said. In Cordova, they hiked Mt. Eyak as a family. Mt. Eyak is a ski hill in the winter and a popular hike for locals and visitors in the summer. It has a vertical rise of 2,500 feet, covers about 5 miles round trip, and takes two to three hours to hike.
Erin Callahan is a psychiatric nurse practitioner. When her son was born, she felt compelled to brush up on neurodevelopment and learn as much as possible about healthy brain development.
"Every article and book I read concluded the same thing and that was: Too much connectedness to screens and media is harmful to the developing brain as it undercuts thinking, creativity, physical activity and overall emotional well-being. I always felt this intuitively but reading it over and over really gave me the push I needed to set healthy limits around our kids’ screen time," she said.
To this day, her son does not get screen time during the week and his time is limited on the weekends and in the summer. Erin said that, as a couple, they explain the “why” when their son asks about his television and computer restrictions that his friends don’t have. They explain that his brain and body need outdoor time, time to problem-solve, think creatively and read to develop in a healthy way, and that screen time could limit that.
They have kept him active since he was a toddler, with gymnastics, soccer, swimming lessons, skiing and outdoor play with friends. He participates in a daily summer camp that prioritizes physical activity all day long. He still plays soccer, is taking a parkour gymnastics class that he loves and participates in a cross country skiing program in the winter.
“Luckily, I no longer have to look for the research on exercise and its positive effects on the brain,” Erin said.
“Every day I'm writing prescriptions for people to get out and exercise,” she said. “The side effects are fantastic!”
Alaska is filled with opportunities to play outside with your family. You can choose trails; local, state and national parks; and endless activities that can keep kids entertained and connecting with nature, often at no or low cost. National parks are easily accessible, and the Every Kid in the Park Program gives every fourth grader and their family a free national park pass for one year. Alaska has 123 state park units in nine regions, covering 3.3 million acres and endless recreational opportunities year-round.
Keeping kids active early on can make a huge difference in how they will prioritize activity later in life. It’s never too late to start. Plan a trip with your kids to a park. Ride bikes on a trail and pack a picnic for along the way. Help your kids build a fort in the backyard, encourage them to play outside and set some limits on screen time. Take time during the week to get out there and play.
Resources to learn more
American Academy of Pediatrics
Create your personalized family media use plan here.