Go outside and play!

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Originally appeared in
Earth Star Magazine December 2008/January 2009
By Rosemary Gaddum Gordon, D.B.O., M.A.

That’s what my mother said when I was a kid. It seems she was tuned into some deep maternal wisdom. A new study out of Sidney, Australia shows the more time kids spend outdoors the less likely they are to become nearsighted. It doesn’t matter whether they are just playing outdoors or participating in a sport, simply being outside seems to be the charm. There are several factors that increase the likelihood of a child becoming nearsighted, this study adds to our knowledge and gives us guidance. As we might expect, the most likely scenario for becoming myopic are many hours a day doing near, indoor activities like reading, drawing and playing handheld computer games. Curiously, midrange activities like watching TV and playing video games appear to make very little difference to the development of nearsightedness and indoor sports doesn’t affect it at all.

In the data collected from these 4,000 children, it seems it is less about the tasks or the activities that affect the vision so much, as the light. Even on a cloudy day the intensity of light is greater outdoors than indoors, however brightly we light our homes. There is also the difference in the quality of natural light. There is a broader spectrum outdoors. People say the light in Australia is unique and interestingly, there is a low incidence of myopia there by international standards.

If these conclusions are correct, then we need to get children outdoors. Those in the study least likely to become myopic spent an average of more than three hours outside every day, even though they were city kids. Some people like to be outdoors more than others, so some children will need more encouragement. A few ideas we might try are: encouraging them to play an outdoor sport (even if it’s non competitive and with the neighborhood kids); cheerleading; hiking; helping with the chores; walking to and from school; persuading the ones who spend hours on the phone to sit outside.

These are all easier when the weather is fine. But, maybe harder to do during the long dark winters, when children spend most of the daylight hours in school. Shooing them outside to make a third snowperson when they’ve just taken off all those clothes may seem excessive – but now we know they need as much time in sunlight as possible. At the weekends we can often give them more outdoor time by taking them sledding, ice skating, skiing and goofing about. There is a saying in the Upper Midwest that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.

This study was done with children but there’s no reason for us to think that adults’ eyes wouldn’t also benefit from being outdoors. Whenever possible, do the outdoor activities with the kids and grand kids. They love that. Get outside during lunch breaks, park far away from the mall rather than as close as possible and in the winter dress warmly enough at weekends to spend several hours outside. Remember to wear some UV protection if you and your kids are out at midday in the bright sun, but in the early morning and late afternoon, let your eyes receive plenty of daylight.

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