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Is Dopamine the Reason We Can't Achieve 1000 Hours Outside a Year?

The short answer is yes. However, it is also the solution.



Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash



It’s mid-October, the 10th month of the year, and already I know we will not reach our goal of spending 1000 hours outside. Again.

The question is, why is it so hard to get outside?


 

The 1000-Hour Challenge

Starting the 1000-hour outdoor challenge in January of 2021, I was confident. Fairly competitive by nature, and a sucker for targets, I thought we would easily conquer the challenge. Knowing that the average screen time per year for a child aged 3 yrs was well over 1000 hrs, and considering we limit our children's screen time at home, I thought it should be easy to substitute time when they might be watching tv with time outdoors.

I was wrong.



 

When you break it down, 1000 hours outside in one year equals approximately 3 hours per day if you were to split it out evenly. Of course, there are some days when getting (and staying) outside is easier than others, so if you assume a few days of 1 or fewer hours, you quickly rack up days where 6+ hours are needed to achieve the yearly target.

Seeing posts and messages from families who had completed (and in some cases greatly blasted past) 1000 hours in previous years, it seemed that, between getting outside most days and planning on spending the summer outdoors, the target was achievable by early fall. It is also fair to note that completing the challenge is not the intention behind its creation. As Ginny Yurich (@1000hoursoutside), who coined the term, describes,

The entire point of 1000 Hours Outside is to attempt to match nature time with screen time.

It is a sad commentary that most kids, on average, spend 1000+ hours (and in some cases easily double or more) on screens per year.


Perhaps, in this observation, there is more than the obvious. The more I have learned through becoming certified as a Forest Therapy Guide about the effect of nature on the brain, the more it becomes apparent that screens are replacing something fundamental to functioning as humans.


 

Driven by dopamine

1000 years ago, we achieved dopamine release through the "thrill of the hunt." A "flow" state of alpha brain waves was accomplished by walking amongst the fractal shapes of nature.


Today, children's television shows, video games, and online media (including educational resources) are designed to trigger the same dopamine release through electronic simulation. Therefore, instead of a primal drive for dopamine release from adventuring outdoors, children's brains are spoon-fed dopamine by technology designed to keep them indoors, inactive, and inert.


Is this the same for families where kids don't watch television or have screen time?


Today many families, including ours, are limiting screen time for young children. Therefore, shouldn't it be easy to get kids outside if there is no competition from screens? The hypothesis I have is that it is the parents' addition to screen time dopamine that is the limiting factor.


When I think of scenarios where it is difficult to either get or stay outside, it is easy to track my thinking back to technology.


  • I want to get one more article written and posted before we head out

  • I should check and see how many "claps" my last article had before we go

  • It's been a while since I last posted on Instagram. I could do a quick post before we go

or

  • If we get back to the house now, I will still have time to work on an article before cooking

  • The battery on my phone is getting low. I should get back to the house now so I am not without power

  • I wonder if my latest article submission has been published since we left

It is not the children's screen time that prevents/limits our hours, but my draw to screen time that creates the desire to either stay indoors or head back early from an outdoor adventure.


Nine times out of 10, if asked, the kids would wholeheartedly say "yes" if I was instead to suggest additional time at an outdoor playground or forest adventure.


Brain-imaging research is showing that glowing screens - like those of iPads - are as stimulating to the brain's pleasure centre and as able to increase levels of dopamine (the primary feel-good neurotransmitter) as much as sex does. This brain-orgasm effect is what makes screen[s] so addictive for adults, but even more so for children with still-developing brains that just aren't equipped to handle that level of stimulation. - Nicholas Kardaras

How to take control of dopamine to get outside

So, what can we do about it? Looking at science there are a few answers that involve dopamine release outdoors. Hint - none of them involve screens.


  1. Movement - research shows that just getting moving is a trigger for dopamine release. This means that walking, running (think games like "tag"), and skiing etc., are more effective at keeping parents and kids outside than sedentary activities (such as taking the kids to the playground and finding the nearest bench).

  2. Play - beyond movement, play is also shown to trigger dopamine release. Therefore, allowing children to engage in free play outdoors (with or without adults), is a great way to naturally reward the brain for spending time outside.

  3. Risky play - further studies on "risky play," defined as, "thrilling and exciting forms of play involving a chance of injury," show benefits to mental and physical development in children. Cities such as Calgary are recognizing this and adopting city infrastructure that encourages and provides outdoor risky play opportunities for children.

  4. Nature fractals - by age 3 research shows that children recognize and prefer fractal patterns found in nature (outdoors) to non-fractal human-made patterns found indoors. Research also shows that viewing fractals can significantly reduce stress in both adults and children.


In short, screen time and media designed to replace dopamine release once achieved through outdoor adventures for humans are depriving us of nature and outdoor experiences that are good for us.


Replacing time on screens (both children and parents) with activities proven to release dopamine naturally, in addition to lowering stress and promoting development, is a way we can reclaim our brains and get back outdoors.


As I sit here writing this, I wonder how much the sharing of experience via technology and social media is getting in the way of the experience itself.



 


Do other people struggle with this balance? What are your thoughts on screen time vs outdoor time?


 


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