Less than 40 minutes per week

I may have found my new favorite data set. The Center on Everyday Lives of Families at UCLA did a study of 32 middle-class, dual-income families in Los Angeles. Researchers documented people’s possessions and videotaped 1500 hours of family activities, recording how and where people were spending their time (the findings are being released as a book in August).

One of the most fascinating findings? Apparently children spent less than 40 minutes a week using their backyards. Adults spent less than 15 minutes, even though many of these families owned a vast arsenal of swing sets, outdoor furniture, even pools.

I find this fascinating — and telling. In Chapter 4 of All the Money in the World, I write about our tendency to want things in our homes that have nothing to do with the lives we actually live. We may picture ourselves living a certain way, but when it comes down to it, we’re spending money on things that may be of limited utility in the real universe, as opposed to our idealized one. Think front doors that open into grand foyers that no one walks through. Dining rooms that get used three times per year. I’m not judging! I own these things too!

My guess is that many of the families in this study purchased their detached, single-family homes — as opposed to condos, or more dense townhouse-type developments — in part because the homes had backyards. We have kids! The kids need a safe place to play!

Except that it turns out the kids use these safe places less than 6 minutes per day.

All fine, unless these families gave something else up to purchase these outdoor spaces that are used less than 6 minutes per day for the kids and about 2 minutes per day for the grown-ups. Did people take on longer commutes? Higher mortgage payments than places with smaller (or shared) yards? Pools in particular are pretty expensive and time consuming to maintain. If the kids wind up using them less than 40 minutes per week (in LA! Where you can use them big chunks of the year!) you’re definitely better off joining a community pool or gym.

There are other fascinating findings in this study that I’ll write about in coming weeks, but the 40 minute figure was a pretty jarring one. I’ve resolved to make sure my kids (and I) do better. I think we’ve been hitting close to 40 minutes a day of late (including firefly catching excursions at dusk) so that’s good. Of course, the kids seem to spend more time in front of the TV than that, despite my best intentions.

How many minutes per week do you and your children spend outside?

Photo courtesy flickr user katmeresin



17 Responses to Less than 40 minutes per week


  1. Twin Mom says:

    This study underestimates the value of yards as buffers in the US. I work for researchers in Korea and in Korea, apartments and buildings are designed to minimize noise, at extra cost. In the US, most apartments have cheap drywall between them. I’ve lived in apartments and in houses and the neighbor noise trumps the yard as a reason to own a house in my book.

    We have a garden and fruit trees in our yard. During the short summers, we are now out there quite a bit. I wonder how the hassle of sunscreen has affected yard use in LA. In the Pacific Northwest, we only use sunscreen for long periods in the sun. (We all shortchanged on vitamin D anyway.)

    • Laura says:

      @Twin Mom- I hadn’t really thought of the sunscreen concept as a barrier to going outside. It is possible that some families make a huge production out of going outside, which means kids go outside less often. But if the kids were demanding it all the time, too, I think parents would figure something else out. My sense is there’s a lot of TV and video game time, though I’ll find out for sure when I get my hands on a summary of this data set! I can’t wait :)

      • Karen A says:

        We definitely feel the sunscreen barrier to going outside in our family. I feel it myself. We are all extremely fair and burn easily–even in the Northeastern US where we live. And I just dislike the feel of sunscreen on my skin. I am trying another new one this year–”breakout free” Neutrogena. It’s okay, and less greasy than usual, but expensive. And I still break out.

        But we could go outside more in the morning and evening. And we do belong to the town pool, which is much better than having to maintain one in your own yard.

        • Laura says:

          I have been finding that evenings are good in summer for more outdoor time. It’s light but cooler – a definite plus.

  2. ARC says:

    Depending on how old the kids are, and where you live, it may not be safe to let kids go out to play, even in their own yard, unsupervised. I know my own kid is too little to be out there without me watching.

    Also, we have a dog poo issue that we need to be better about dealing with, but until we get better at picking it up daily, I worry about that too.

    We do spend a lot of time out on our deck, though, when it is finally nice out here. Which isn’t very often in Seattle ;)

  3. Cloud says:

    I remember reading about that study when it came out. We spend far more time than that outside- we spend several hour outside in our backyard over the weekend, for instance, and roughly 30 minutes out there this evening, after dinner. But my kids are young and still spend all of their “spare” time with us (i.e., all the time they aren’t in day care). I wonder if the statistics would look different if they broke them down by age of kids. When they get older and start having their own agendas, I suspect we’ll spend less time outside as a family. But maybe then my husband and I can spend more time outside relaxing.
    FWIW, we live in San Diego and consider sunscreen a requirement for any outside time that isn’t after dinner, and I don’t think that has ever been an impediment to us. We use the spray sunscreen, with a stick sunscreen for the kids’ faces. It takes very little time, and for the most part, the kids don’t fight us on it (anymore- Pumpkin went through a sunscreen fighting phase, but the promise of outside time usually sorted that out).

  4. Anne Bogel says:

    I’m floored. Although with the 105 degree weather we’ve been having, we haven’t been using the backyard either. (Yes, the backyard was a major selling point when we bought our house!)

    But yesterday was a cool 75 degrees and we spent 3 hours in the backyard, maybe a little more. We even ate outside to enjoy the cool day.

    Looking forward to more info from that time study.

    • Laura says:

      Oh, there seems to be all kinds of fun stuff. Like that clutter makes women unhappy…but not men.

  5. Cara Marcano says:

    It is interesting, right? How our collective neighborhoods are these quiet ghost towns… on sunday afternoon I drove by some great little communities and you see nobody outside… I think it is the tv and internet age and how man things compete for kids attention — as well as possibly global warming… I mean here in the northeast we have had a week of 100 degrees.. and I never remember that kind of heat in my own childhood.. a community pool is way better than a backyard pool for a variety of reasons including the ones you mention here… our yard is very full of bugs right now and it isn’t that pleasant to be out there with mosquitos but we probably do an hour a day in the backyard .. maybe more and I hang laundry to dry b/c it is better for the environment/energy bill and seems a good use of the heat … but it is surprising how much shxt we have and how little we use… i feel this way about toys.. how did they get so many toys and how do they seem to play so little with each one…

    • Laura says:

      @Cara- you’ll love another data point from this study: there’s a 30% estimated increase in the number of a family’s possessions with each new child (during the preschool years alone!) In our case, this is definitely true for kid #3, not because she got a lot of new stuff (only girly clothes because girly baby clothes are awesome). It’s because we moved to a bigger home and filled it with furniture. I imagine a lot of the families in the study moved to a “real” house with the first or second kid and the acquisition of stuff began…

  6. When we lived in an LA-like-climate we were out in the backyard ALL THE TIME. We even watched netflix out there. Sunscreen was a bit of a production because the dominant culture (among the people we talked with) there is only a specific type of sunscreen (zinc oxide, non micronized) which is a bit of a pain to put on compared to the more chemical brands. But DC was generally already covered as it was required for daycare.

    Of course, we also walked to the wonderful public parks and playgrounds and just enjoyed the neighborhood more generally.

    Here, we use the yard mainly as a buffer from our neighbors. It’s hot. There are red ants, mosquitos, and other nasties. It isn’t as bad in the winter. We’re more likely to be at the HOA pool in the summer than in our back yard. Of course, nobody uses the HOA park (except us) because they have huge play structures in their own backyards which they do use.

  7. Kelly Damain says:

    I moved from Oakland to Bakersfield and definitely experienced the ‘ghost town’ phenomena that Cara so perfectly described. There is just not as much emphasis on public, communal spaces as there was in a more urban town. I think a lot of this is structural, our house is big and comfortable, our friends are far away, people drive straight in their garages and there’s not a lot of chance to say ‘hiya neighbor’.

    Random question:
    Is this the same study that is referred to in the New Yorker article about how we Americans raise our kids?

    • Laura says:

      @Kelly- I don’t know if it’s the same one from the New Yorker. It certainly could be. I think it will be well written about, given some of the initial data that’s come out. It’s just so fascinating.

  8. Nicole I says:

    What interesting stats, I am curious to know more. We live in an urban area in the SF bay area and our kids play in our backyard at least,if not more than 40mins a day. With no pool or play structure, just a big tree, swing, deck and imagination.

    • Laura says:

      @Nicole – it is interesting. The cool thing about a study like this is that it shows that certain impressions we have of our lives may not be accurate. I was thinking my kids spent a lot of time in the backyard but today, for instance, we didn’t spend that much time. Well my kids didn’t. I’m typing this on my back porch…

  9. Wow, this is fascinating. And so SAD, I think. I grew up in my backyard (and the neighbor’s, and the country roads we rode our bikes on…). I lived in a small Southern town, so maybe that was it.
    I lived in the suburbs of St. Louis now – a small town, close to rural areas, but we’re right in the middle of town. My kids are outside AT LEAST one hour a day, usually more like 2. We often have 2 – 4 neighbor kids hanging out, too, for at least part of that time. Today we didn’t get home from church & errands until 2:30, and they immediately ran, changed clothes, and were in our yard until I called them in at 4 for naps. My kids are young – 3, 4, and 6 – but we live in a quiet street, our yard is (partially) fenced, and I can see them thru windows.. and I’m also a very “free range” parent, so I spent some careful time training them on our “outside rules” and now they have the freedom to play out there by themselves. (I check on them frequently, too.) When the baby’s napping, I often sit out on the porch swing while they play, and when my husband gets home at night we often spend more time outside.. he might do yard work, I’ll chat with the neighbor, whatever…
    Anyway, we’re def. clocking way over that 40 min per week mark.
    For the record, we use the spray sunscreen+bug spray combo. I keep a couple of bottles by the front & back door, and coat ‘em up if they’re going to be outside for more than 45 minutes. Otherwise I let them get some vitamin D.

  10. Naomi Mermin says:

    We eat in our yard in Portland Maine every night of summer. When we bought the house we put a fence around the back yard because we had a dog and 2 year old. As soon as Sam was old enough to go out on his own he lived out there. At some point the street/ basketball hoop became the main object, yard us too small for full games and we live near high school fields. The kids connect and go to the fields for pick up games. It’s a small lot in a neighborhood of small lots near walkable schools. My house is Tiny and I want more house ( I need the reference point on clutter may save my marriage) but none of us is willing to give up the neighborhood. When people visit they all want this type of neighborhood. You need both the physical layout relatively small houses and yards pretty close together ( everyone knows each other and not enough space to play inside) close to good public space and a community willing to leave the kids a little unscheduled. We have a lot of families with parents who either work from home ( me, I run my consulting business fro
    Home) or are artists, writers etc. so also a lot of shared oversight of the kids – most kids know which adults may be home etc.