Statistics on Unsupervised Outdoor Play

Sure, we’re all convinced that kids are playing outdoors unsupervised far less than kids did decades ago. Those kids played outside practically every day for hours, weather permitting, starting at the age of four or five. Today, it’s almost impossible to find this.

However, it’s always nice to find statistics that confirm our own subjective assessments. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find research that backs up this contention.

I recently had an email exchange on this topic with Professor Sandra Hofferth, the leading researcher on how American children spend their time. She and her colleagues have collected data going back to 1981 on how children spend every minute during a typical week. To do this, they collected time diaries from children and their parents, attributing portions of their day to any of 21 categories.

So, what do Hofferth’s data say about the demise of unsupervised outdoor play? Well, nothing.

That’s right, “unsupervised outdoor play,” is not one of Hofferth’s 21 categories. Even “outdoor play” is not a category. “Outdoors” is a category, but that doesn’t include play. Instead, it includes activities like boating, camping, and hunting.

There is a category called “play,” but that includes everything that is associated with the word, including indoor play like video games and Barbies. Also, there is a category called “sports” that includes both adult-supervised sports and unsupervised (a.k.a. “pickup”) sports.

Apparently, unsupervised outdoor play is such an insignificant part of children’s lives today that Hofferth hasn’t bothered to measure it. Interestingly, back in 1981, when Hofferth first collected these data, I would guess that “play” would have been practically synonymous with “unsupervised outdoor play.” In other words, the modifiers would have been redundant, like saying “the African-American Barack Obama.”

In our email exchange, Hofferth offered her strong conjecture that the outdoor portion of play is quite small, and the unsupervised portion of sports is quite small. I agree, but, well, I wish we had numbers.

Hey, perhaps we parents can get kids playing unsupervised so much more that we can get researchers to measure it! Boy, I’d love to see that…

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