Worrying research finds screen entertainment has replaced outdoor play

Young children now spend the majority of their playtime indoors in front of a screen.

By Jonathan Manning
photographs by Jonathan Manning
Published 16 Oct 2018, 10:26 BST
"Real play  has essential roles in the balanced development of all children," says Sir Ken ...
"Real play has essential roles in the balanced development of all children," says Sir Ken Robinson.
Photograph by Jonathan Manning

An alarming new study has revealed that indoor screen time has replaced play in the great outdoors for the majority of children in the UK and Ireland.

The survey of 1,000 adults found that by the age of seven, children will have typically spent two years and three months in front of a screen. Moreover, this is generally a solitary activity, with only 44% of screen time shared with friends and family.

A statement from Sir Ken Robinson, leading expert in education, creativity and human development, and chair of the Dirt is Good Child Development Advisory Board, said, "If you’re an adult now, how much time did you spend as a child playing outdoors, making up games on your own or with friends, dashing around, taking tumbles, all for the sheer fun of it? Until recently, children spent many hours every week on this sort of physical, imaginative, social play.  ‘Real play’ like this is not only enjoyable: it is vitally important in young lives. Research has long shown that it has essential roles in the balanced development of all children and young people.”

Parents are worried

The research found that parents are concerned about the increased time that their children spend gazing at screens – 43% said their children are even on two screens simultaneously - but acknowledge, too, how screen time can be a solution to the pressures of family life.

As a result, 79% of parents said they find screens helpful, and 77% have used them to occupy children while they get on with other tasks. But 61% of parents are worried that excessive exposure to screens can negatively affect their child’s creative thinking and ability to problem solve, while 66% are  concerned abouth the impact on their children’s psychological development; and 77% have reservations about how screen time will affect their children’s social skills and how they interact with other children.

"Until recently, children spent many hours every week on this sort of physical, imaginative, social play," says Sir Ken Robinson.
Photograph by Jonathan Manning

“There are all kinds of attractions in using digital technologies, for pleasure, leisure work and education. But there’s a downside and the catastrophic erosion of ‘real play’ is a major part of it. This startling study is a call to action for parents; educators and policy makers to create real time and space for real play in the lives of all children," said Robinson.

Screens take over at age of four

The study, conducted by Persil, discovered that the switch from creative, open play to screen entertainment takes place at the age of four. By the time a child reaches seven, he or she will have spent two-and-a-half times as long sitting alone in front of a screen than engaging in outdoor play.

One of the most troubling findings of the study was the sense of powerlessness among parents to limit screen time, despite 62% wishing their children would spend more time playing outside.

Persil has pledged to help parents redress this indoor-outdoor play imbalance, and has supported a number of initiatives to help families engage with the great outdoors. These include:

  • Outdoor Classroom Day – this international initiative to celebrate outdoor play saw 2.3 million children have at least one school lesson outdoors last year. This year Outdoor Classroom Day takes place on November 1. The campaign is spearheaded by Learning through Landscapes.
  • parkrun – this brilliant, free of charge programme encourages people of all ages and abilities to take part in a local run. There are hundreds of parkruns around the country, with 5km runs on Saturdays and 2km runs for children aged four to 14 on Sundays.
  • Real Play Coalition – created by National Geographic, Persil, IKEA, and The LEGO Foundation, this coalition is a movement that prioritises the importance of ‘real play’.
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