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This is your child’s brain on summer

By on 06-12-2019

Neuroscience proves what every parent already knows: kids need to get outside and offline

Most people have fond memories of their childhood summers. This is partly because human memory is selective–we are hardwired to remember the good over the bad–and because we are better at remembering things that break the routine of work or school. But it is also because summer, then as now, is a time to have fun and let loose.

Somewhat ironically, summer is also a time to be bored. There has been a lot of press recently about the positive side of boredom. Why now? And what does that have to do with summer? The problem is that children and adolescents are using technological devices to fill the void created by boredom instead of using their own imaginations. This is true all year long, but summer comes with its extra dose of free time, which all too often means an extra dose of screen time.

The neuroscience behind the importance of imagination for brain development is clear. Children need to play imaginary games because it helps them train their brains and emotions for when something similar happens in the real world, much like how a vaccine prepares the body for a real disease.

The brain recognizes a challenging situation because it has already worked out how to deal with it before. Interestingly, many sports teams use imagination or visualization training to practice for real games. Not letting your child develop his or her imagination not only puts them at a disadvantage compared to other children who do, it sets them up for serious emotional problems like those I see at my practice every day, from attention deficit disorder, to depression and anxiety.

This happiness predisposes the brain to creativity, learning, and memory. If we add the component that playing outside tends to come with fewer guidelines, or even lets children set their own guidelines, summer becomes a great breeding ground for the development of imagination, creativity, perseverance, and effort.

An important study by Edelman Intelligence concludes that “dirt is good.” Playing outside the home is certainly better than doing it between four walls. According to the research, "children need a wide variety of experiences to develop their full potential and parents understand that playing and getting dirty is essential for their growth and that without play there is no holistic learning."

Sadly, a recent UK study revealed that prisoners spend nearly twice as long as children outdoors. According to the survey, 74% of children spend less than an hour a day outside, meaning most of their day is spent in closed spaces. This is bad news for humans, a species wired throughout history to be outside.

But do we really need studies to prove all this? Most parents already know through experience that it always helps to get the kids out of the house. At home, they very quickly get cabin fever and start to climb the walls! It’s pretty easy to understand the modern day increase in anxiety disorders, feelings of sadness, or agitation.

I believe nothing can replace the time spent face to face with our loved ones and I firmly believe that summer is a great opportunity to reconnect with children, to talk, listen, laugh, and get bored. I invite parents to get outdoors and, at the very least, put strict limits on screen time this summer. Save mobiles and tablets for long car or airplane rides. And, I challenge parents to try an entire month of digital detox. Sounds impossible? Just remember almost all of human history was a digital detox, likely including your childhood, and your children deserve at least one summer.

Maria Guerrero Moya
Maria Guerrero, LPC, is a licensed psychologist with over 20 years of experience helping children, couples, and families. She is also the proud mother of two.

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