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More time in natural settings can help a child get a higher quality night’s sleep. More time in natural settings can help a child get a higher quality night’s sleep.
2024 Jan

Is Your Child Sleep Deprived?

Find out how outdoor play leads to better sleep.

Many parents are surprised to learn that their children suffer from persistent sleep deprivation—getting as much as two hours less sleep per day than recommended. There are numerous reasons including: busy schedules, addiction to television and electronic games, and lack of public knowledge about the amount of sleep kids really need.

But another reason for this chronic sleep deprivation comes from a new and growing problem: a nearly complete lack of regular outdoor play time. What is the connection? In addition to getting kids temporarily away from the eye-popping stimulation of electronic media, building outdoor time into a child’s schedule will help him or her get a better night’s sleep and
all the physical, emotional and cognitive benefits that brings. Outdoor time provides exposure to natural light, the calming and curing effect of time in natural settings, and the enhanced exercise levels that can be achieved by outdoor, as compared to indoor, play.

Signs Your Child is Sleep Deprived

Trade Screen Time for More Green Time
Screen time
Trading “screen time” for more “green time” ensures children get the fresh air and exercise they need.

Parents need to remember that children are bad judges of their own need for sleep. A recent study found that children insisted they were not sleepy even when they had only had four hours of sleep at night.

Kids with sleep deficits:

  • are harder to awaken in the morning;
  • have greater difficulty concentrating on tasks;
  • take inadvertent naps;
  • have slow reaction times;
  • experience unusual episodes of hyperactivity;
  • often engage in defiant behavior.

Sleep deprivation may also make kids moodier overall. A study of healthy elementary school students found more intense emotionality was associated with sleep problems. Researchers monitored kids’ sleep with wrist actigraphs (which can detect the physiological signs of sleep) and parental reports. They found that the most emotional children in the test group got the least sleep and had the highest number of night awakenings.

There is no single solution to childhood sleep deprivation, but a part of having kids who are well rested and able to face their daily challenges involves trading some of their “screen time” for more “green time.”

More time in natural settings can help a child get fresh air, be healthier, less anxious and depressed, feel calmer and more productive, and, importantly, get a higher quality night’s sleep.

Parents, educators and pediatricians are becoming more adept at addressing sleep deprivation by creating regular go-to-bed routines, removing televisions from the bedroom, putting cell phones out of reach after a certain hour, and more. But there is more that can be easily done to create happy, well-developed kids.

For example, a number of guides and tools are available to parents who want their children to get a better night’s sleep. They emphasize diet, bedtime routines, toning down late-night stimulation, communication, and other techniques. There are also many helpful ideas and tools for helping your child get better sleep through more exposure to the outdoors and nature.

Here are a few practical suggestions:

A Dose of Nature

No need for parents or caregivers to make this a heavy-duty “to do” added to an already long list. It certainly doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Getting kids to engage in more outdoor time can include occasional walks to school, help with home gardening, a surprise picnic dinner, and any of a thousand small and even convenient outings. The main idea is to get them a dose of nature, natural light, and activity.

Think Morning Time

A little time outdoors in the morning will help to set a child’s sleep clock for the rest of the day and night. Walks to school or morning activities on weekends and summer days can make a significant sleep quality difference. “Walking School Buses” are a great way to spend time with your child and get some exercise.

Look at Your School’s Recess

Parents can talk to principals and teachers about the value of having outdoor morning recess for children. Many schools have actually been cutting out recess and pushing for more classroom academic time. But studies show that lack of routine outdoor time and exercise can hurt a child’s academic performance and ability to focus on assignments.

Day Care

Parents can also check in with their day care provider to suggest that some daily outdoor time be built into the schedule. Many centers do this already, but others need to be more mindful of outdoor play time.

After-School Play Dates

Parents are often apprehensive about simply sending their children out to roam the neighborhood. They are concerned that the children might come to harm through mishaps, traffic dangers, or the predatory intentions of strangers. A simple remedy for this is to arrange joint outdoor time with other parents and children. Or parents can rotate and take turns being an outdoor-time supervisor on the block or in the neighborhood.

Kid-Friendly Backyards

Make the yard more fun for kids by adding swings, bird feeders, a garden, play equipment, outdoor toys, and more.

It doesn’t take much to make the yard more fun for kids—some bird feeders, a garden, play equipment, outdoor toys, and more.

Weekend Outings

If the weekdays are too crammed with work, sport practices, dance lessons, tutoring, and other demands that make it hard for parents to get the kids outdoors, try using the weekends to make up lost ground.

Nature Places

The U.S. Forest Service offers ideas and a list of apps for finding great nature places and parks to visit and events to join.

Outdoor Activities

Check your community publications (like Tidewater family Plus!) for calendars featuring fun activities for families and children. Local state parks and recreation centers have year-round programs designed to get your kids outside and active!

Connect with Wildlife

A couple of times a year consider taking the kids on a more extensive outdoor adventure such as canoe trip, an overnight campout, or a challenging hike. In addition to helping a child experience the outdoors, such activities also teach a child about the natural world and connect him or her to wildlife and the environment.

In a world of hyperactivity, stress, electronic music, 24/7 television programming, interactive video games, texting, and other types of e-stimulation, it is good to know that children can receive so many health and sleep benefits from spending fun time outdoors. It is especially good to know how such outdoor time heals the body, mind, and soul. Regular outdoor time puts children’s minds at rest. And a rested mind is the first step towards erasing your child’s sleep deficit.

Source: National Wildlife Federation

Give Your Child a Healthy Start to the School Year

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Help ensure your child enters the new school year healthy and without delay with these tips from the Virginia Department of Health.