The pudge or the suburb

An interesting article in Science News looks at some recent news connecting the rise of suburbs in America, and the expansion of waistlines. Generally, the more time you spend in your car, the more you weigh.

This is a great example of the thorny problem of correlation and causation, which we discussed before in reference to astrology. Just because two things are related, that doesn’t always mean that one caused the other. Or that only two factors are involved in the relationship.

Do inactive people go to suburbia, where they can drive everywhere? Or does suburbia require more driving, and discourage walking? And are there other factors that need to be considered?

When I lived in Texas, there were NO sidewalks in the town I lived in. None.
If you wanted to walk anywhere (and I did), you had to either walk in the road, or on the grass. The grass wasn’t actually proper grass–it was the desert, and it was spiny burr grass. This was a fairly serious disincentive to doing anything outside, when you added in the fire ants.

Most of my students hated going outside. Feared it, even. They were not going to be walking to work. Ever.

I’m currently reading “Last Child in the Woods“, which laments the loss of time spent outdoors by children. In one telling quote, a fourth-grader says “I like to play indoors ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
In a study I cited recently for a project on entomological literacy, kids under the age of 12 spend less than one hour outdoors per week.

Per. Week.

While I don’t totally buy the whole notion of lack of nature as a “disorder,” I do think that our society is disordered in its approach to nature, and also unstructured play. Kids screwing around unsupervised is how to learn best.
I would never have become a scientist had I not spent the first 12 years of my life utterly filthy and mud covered.

The book also takes a pleasantly skeptical approach to parental fears that kids outside are at risk, either of being hurt or victimized. In fact, the actual number of US abductions is quite small. And, sadly, most children are harmed by people they know–so inside isn’t really safer, anyway.

Hopefully, that book will influence parents of current kids to send them outside. And they won’t grow into the kind students I have now, which insist on driving from their dorms to class. Even if it’s only a few blocks away.


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. I grew up on the edges of suburbia in southern and central California, and spent my childhood exploring canyons, hillsides and creeks. My sister and I caught king and gopher snakes and kept them as pets. Our father taught us how to make grass nooses to snare bluebelly lizards and skinks as they sunned themselves.

    We were warned about rattlesnakes, poison oak, tasting strange plants, etcetera. Rarely in those explorations did I feel in danger, and that was more often from strange dogs than strange people.

    I never chose a career in the sciences, but I retain a layman's curiosity and appreciation of plants, animals and wild places to this day. Currently I'm helping my sister raise her son the same way.

  2. Honestly, while I think there are probably a large number of people who would benefit from being outside, and I know I certainly spent a large part of my childhood outside, I am not sure that being inside is all that much worse.

    Being outside is not a virtue in itself, and so I think a risk/benefit analysis could be easily made if a specific goal were made, and you restricted the system to a binary system wherein the choice needs to be "inside" or "outside" (meaning assume the child will exclusively do outdoor play or indoor play). Outdoor play (in the ideal) gives children a better understanding of nature, presumably is done with other children and so encourages extra-filial socialization, promotes physical exercise and has a host of small dangers which, I would argue, teach the child about risk (e.g. it is a net positive if a child grabs a cat's tail and is scratched, because the child obviously will survive a cat scratch, but will now know that animals do not like to be assaulted). Indoor play has a host of benefits as well. Children who use computers a lot will be more integrated into modern society which requires one to be techno-saavy, playing shooting video games have been shown to improve hand-eye coordination (to my knowledge), 3-d games give the child a unique advantage in spacial reasoning, puzzle games give children problem-solving skills, etc. Furthermore, children who are inside are probably more likely to do things like read a book or play a trivia game or otherwise become educated in the "booksmart" sense, and will have the guidance of their parents, presumably in this effort. I know that when I have children, I am going to try and find them games which involve solving 4-dimensional puzzles (like a Rubik's hypercube) and/or which involve completing tasks in relativistic or quantum environments, so that they will have the opportunity to gain some intuitive understanding of these kinds of things without ever knowing they are learning (Mwahahaha!). Those kind of opportunities are the kinds that I missed out on because they were not available, but which would certainly help me pass modern physics or understand 4-dimensional geometry.

    So really, the question is, how bad is it that children are staying inside more? I would say that in this day in age, it really isn't that bad considering all the educational advantages offered by technology, but either extreme is probably not going to produce a well-rounded individual. I would hope that children and parents could be able to find a reasonable equilibrium which allows children to gain the experience from indoor play AND from outdoor play.

  3. Every now and then I see one of those "in my day" 'humerous' messages where people spout off about "in my day children played outside, on hard concrete, and everything was nice, but now children have it easy with foam padding, and electronic games, and people sue each other at a drop of a hat" etc etc. To which I ever want to reply "well, you grew up and made all those changes!"

  4. Paul, I think it's critical that kids be outside for a lot of reasons, but the most important one is that you can't value what you don't know.

    If you've never developed any relationship with nature, why should you care if it's paved over or lost?

    Additionally, the relationship between all first world countries and their food supply is pretty remote. I'm a big promoter of gardening and 4H. 4H participation, in fact, I find to be a huge predictor of who will be successful in college.
    (totally unsubtle plug :) )

  5. I agree with bug_girl there – I find it almost amusing how removed 1st worlders are from the actual world in general. I grew up on a farm, so I had my share of "food prep" as it were… I would have been saved a lot of laundry if cattle and pigs were saran-wrapped under those skins :D

    Never did 4-H myself, but it was fun to go see them show off the animals.

  6. Right, but that implies that the outside has some kind of intrinsic value. I enjoy walks in the woods and sitting in fields and all that stuff, but if you asked me to choose between building a robot and climbing a tree, I'd pick the robot because I like that stuff more. I didn't say always keep the kids inside, but I don't think it's necessarily bad that they might choose to stay inside. If everyone preferred robots to trees, it wouldn't be bad if we cut down all the trees (assuming we somehow replaced them with some robotic analogue that serves the same ecological purpose), because trees of themselves don't have value. However, we don't live in a world of such extremes, and while there are probably going to be a lot of kids who would prefer robots, I imagine there will always be a contingent who also loves trees, and the tree-lovers will become botanists and/or musicians, and the robot-lovers will become mechanical engineers and/or virgins.

    I'm just saying that if you basically offer the kids the choice to go outside or to stay inside, and they find that they don't like being outside, they will probably end up turning out just fine, and the skills they learn will simply be different from the skills learned by people who like being outside.

  7. Yeah, the first time I saw a fishing video game, I was pretty appalled. I agree with Bug Girl. I think children NEED to play outside more than one hour per week. They also need to do their home work and not let their schooling suffer. I think there should be a balance. There shouldn't be such a line between the "brains" and the "jocks."

    While some video games help develop some motor skills, and the internet is a vast store of knowledge, there's no substitute for the ol' communing with nature thing. I don't know, but I'd be willing to bet that a child's brain activity is higher when he's playing outside than it is during even the most intense video games.

    Then there's the benefits of fresh air. Cold and flu outbreaks occur mostly during winter because everyone is cooped up inside in close quarters, not because of the temperature. Everyone, not just children, benefit from a little air now and then.

    I feel we are evolving into a bio-domed, "Logan's Run" type of society (every one should see that movie), and I don't like it!

    Why in MY day, we had to … Hey you durn kids! Get off my lawn!

  8. Ok, here is somewhat contrary view. I spent the majority of my childhood avoiding going outside. I sunburn easily, attracted bugs like I was a bug zapper and basically hated the outdoors. Even as an adult, I have called a truce with Mother Nature. I don't spend large amounts of time outdoors and "she" doesn't make my life miserable while I am there. I am a well adjust individual who just prefers to spend time indoors reading, playing with the computer, and watching T.V. or movies. I am not overweight and do bike and walk in an urban setting.

    What I do think is important that kids are given the opportunity to learn for themselves what they do and do not like. That they should be given the freedom to go outdoors and get muddy and spend time hiking and decide do I love this or don't I. This is what I think is missing in today's children's lives. I have friends who have never even sent their kids to camp for fear of what might happen. I was once writing an article and doing research and it stated that a kid wasn't allowed to cross a busy road to visit a friend who lived across the road. This wasn't a five year old this was an eleven year old. Instead, this kid IM the other friend. This restrictiveness is what I think is contributing to the problems not necessarily the lack of time in the great outdoors.

  9. I think simply put, that you should try and get the best of both worlds. And for that, you need to have both worlds available for benefitting from. Leave the choice to the kids.

    That said, you can't spend all your time watching TV or playing video games either, you might as well get your kids to go outside and play when you're shooing them away from the TV.

  10. wow! I know where I teach the kids go OUT. Blizzard, whatever, they are OUT. The kids have built a wonderful "town" in the woods. It's called "Haytown" and kids have built wood forts (or just a bunch of sticks in teepee style) for over 15 years. They have created paths, bridges over streams, tree houses…all on their own. A teacher just has to sort of "stand" there. It's great. The kids love it.

    I also find if there is not an outdoor recess (because of heavy rain) the kids are awful all afternoon. Teachers live for getting the kids OUT OUT OUT! They love it. Now there is snow on the ground, and the kids all bring sleds to school. They are really ready to go back to studying and work after a good 30 minutes sledding! It doesn't matter how cold it is, sledding will warm you up.

    Still, I live in the country, and I don't walk nearly as much as I did in the city. I loved living in the city and being able to take a bus or tram around. Here, it is so hilly and steep, and there is only ONE street to walk on. Boring. And you don't walk anywhere. But I spent the weekend in Boston and even though it was cold, I walked for miles and miles.

  11. This is interesting: today's news:

    "Living in greener neighborhoods or in closer proximity to grocery stores is associated with reduced risk of being overweight, according to a study of more than 7,000 children ages three to 18 …The study, which was conducted in Marion County, Indiana, found that increased green space was closely associated with decreased risk for being overweight, but only for children residing in higher population density regions."

  12. In other words, when you live in the sticks, and it takes an hour and a half to walk to town, the only reason people would do that is if their car ran out of gas and they didn't have any other way to get to town. In order to walk places, everything you need also has to be walking distance. If the nearest bus stop is a 15 minute hike, followed by an unreliable busline that only runs every two hours, you're gonna get a car because you just can't get to where you have to be in a timely fashion.

    If the way your kids take to school crosses a major pressway, you're gonna drive them yourself, or send them there using the school bus.

    If I lived in a place like Boston, like rebecca and Evelyn, I probably wouldn't have a car either, because public transportation is convenient/sufficient and besides that you can't park anywhere.

    While walking is a human's natural way of going places, it's not always the most ideal way of getting there any more.

  13. One hour per week! That is astounding to the point where I'm torn between my own skepticism and my respect for Bug_Girl's ability to interpret the validity of such a figure. I mean, wow.

    All of my most vivid memories from childhood stem from playing outside.I think it's possible for kids to remain inside all the time and still grow up to be normal, well-adjusted adults, but on the whole I do think that it benefits kids to encourage time exploring the outdoors. I almost feel bad for whatever future children I may have, since I won't have a television and I'll kick them out of the house while mommy has martini time.

  14. This just in:

    a different study confirms that if there are places to walk *to*, people walk more.

    Also, the one hour stat I quoted is a mean, so there are of course people with more (and less) exposure. But, you can look at some of the time diaries, and they are just freakin depressing. A vast see of tv, indoor sports, and no reading. :(

    When I get a chance (I'm feeling slightly better today…) I'll post the original link, and we can all have a nice argument about the validity of the stat :D

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