Fertile Ground: Where the Girls Are...Not: Gendering Outdoor Play

a black and white photo of a group of girls in dresses and hair bows standing outside

A recent article in TIME magazine reveals a study that says kids are not getting outside enough. It is the girls who are neglected the most—they’re 16% less likely than boys to be taken outdoors. Really?

In the article, the pediatrician and lead author of the study, Pooja Tandon, posits that girls are not encouraged to get out there because they are most likely considered less physically active, or less actively inclined, or less sporty. I know girls may generally not be encouraged to play football, but to not even be encouraged to go outside? When did 2012 become a Jane Austen novel? Do little girls just have too much indoor cross-stitch to get done to be bothered?

In my family, we make sure our son, who is less than two, gets his fill of outdoor play. He’s already been camping with us, he is worn on my back in the field, and he’s already eaten a millipede at the park by accident.  (That last one I am not so proud of—sorry, Baby! Also, sorry, millipede.) I can’t imagine I would do things any differently if I had a daughter.  

Dr. Tandon goes on to say:

One philosopher argued that “gendered standards of cleanliness” and play leave girls less exposed to microorganisms commonly found in outdoor environments and may be an explanation for the higher rates of atopic and autoimmune diseases in females.

Um, what? Quick, get these girls a bowl of millipedes! With a spoon!

It is disturbing on many levels to think of girls being shut inside buildings like delicate pieces of glass, and it underscores how hard archaic belief systems are to shake. But people of the world, listen up: most children can benefit from going outside. According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, children who do not get enough outdoor time are subject to what he dubs Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD), which can lead to health issues later in life.

I don’t know if I got outside enough as a kid, but since working outside for most of my life after college, I feel I have been making up for it. For me as a farmer, being outside with my knees in the dirt is one of my favorite things in the world. On days I work the hardest, I can feel my muscles ache slightly and satisfyingly, and when the sun has set and I close my eyes to fall into a deep sleep only a hard day’s work can bring, I see the crisp green of snap peas or booming yellow of calendula flowers sparkling under my eyelids. The human body often responds well to physical work, and the industry of feeding people seems like a worthy cause to use such muscles.

Exposure to nature is good for children and adults for a billion different reasons, one being it satisfies certain natural instincts. I suspect without nature, people get these kicks in different ways: overly stimulating 3D movies and shopping at music-throbbing retail stores, for two. The truth is, intricate systems of biodiversity and just plain stuff outdoors—forests patches brimming with willows and oaks, a tiny pond’s cattails swept over to one side like paintbrushes in a bucket, the moon on a cloudy night set amidst the background of deep, guttural frog voices so loud you have to shout over them—can provide all the 3D you really need. (Or really want, for that matter—I mean, really, Titanic? Did ANYONE really want that?). Instead of fake stimulation (which has its place, mind you), nature is something our spirits need to thrive.  Personally, I need nature and simply being outside to keep going and to help counter depression. I need to know there are magical things out there, like tiny white blossoms coming up in cracks in sidewalks. In my own experience, the farther away we are from the natural world, the worse for wear we are.

Children especially can use this outdoor time to build an appreciation, love, sense of awe, and sense of protection for nature. These qualities can then bleed over into adulthood, where being outside does numerous things for the human spirit. An Austrian woman once told me that Waldorf education has a leg up on mainstream education because Waldorf feeds the child’s soul. She didn’t elaborate, but I know the Waldorf philosophy discourages TV-watching and has kids outside as part of the day, every day, even in blizzard conditions. Once a child looks outside into the world, outside of themselves, they can truly let go and feed that soul. Let the girl or boy look at beauty of the dandelion blossoms, the tangle of trees, the wind-blurred prairie grasses. Look in wonder at the nettle patch hugging the railroad tracks, or the sweet violets clustered together beside the park’s swing set.

From what I can tell, those that meet and fall in love with nature want to protect it, like any lover would.  Nature gives us nourishment (quite literally, food and medicine), and we in turn nourish it back. Without the natural world, we lose touch of what really matters and is important. We forget to look away from ourselves and out around us. I once saw a clip online from the show Teen Mom, where a teen girl whined about how she simply couldn’t breastfeed because “it would ruin the look” of her breasts, and it makes me wonder now: how as a culture did we lose so much touch with the natural world?

Well, in my view, it starts with us, people. How about we speak to young kids, treat them like humans first before genders, and bring them ALL outside? Let them make their own decisions about what they’d like to talk about, think about, and do, and show them how great it is in the sun (or rain). To those parents who have daughters that the TIME article talks about, my advice would be this: Tell children, of ALL genders, that this outside world, whether a postage-stamp backyard or a grassy park or a forest preserve, is the real world, this wondrous green and sun-splotched wavy world, the one outside the static white-walled interiors. Outside where the TV doesn’t blink its too-fast images, where there’s no plug for the Xbox, where Apple apps can’t compete.  Show them the “real world,” before MTV shows them first.

Previously: Intro to Ecofeminist Thought

by Alison Parker
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6 Comments Have Been Posted

Girls playing outdoors

I read this response to the TIME article as a few others that are floating around the blogosphere (Jezebel for example). Obviously there is a lot here that wasn't addressed and can't be addressed in a blog post, but I am surprised that Bitch (and a few of the other feminist blogs that have addressed the issue) did not see a few of the blatant problems inherent in the structure of the study. Am I the only one that found it rather peculiar that the study being discussed seems to place direct correlation between "Mothers" and their influence on outdoor play. "Asian mothers were 49% less likely, black mothers 41% less likely and Hispanic mothers 20% less likely to venture outside with their kids." So let me get this straight, in an article which contemplates gendered discrepancies in the behavior of children, the authors of the study proceed to place the blame for this on "Mothers". Ugh. In fact the undercurrents of class and race apparent within the design of the study are robust. "Mothers" who "work out" a few times per week are more likely to press their children for more outdoor fun. "Mothers" who are not racialized as white are doing a bad job of this. In other words, if you are white and have some free time on your hands, your children will be healthier. No sh*$t. I'm surprised Jezebel didn't do a better job of picking this study to bits.

You make a great point, and I

You make a great point, and I totally agree--like you said, I couldn't address everything in my post, and instead, just chose to talk about a very small part (the idea of why, in very general terms, girls are thought of to be less equipped to handle being outside than boys). But you're totally right--that is just a very small part of it and there is a lot more to talk about about in regards to this article and (flawed) study, including its ignorance of race and class issues.

I haven't read the article,

I haven't read the article, but having a degree in developmental psychology I can say that this is extremely common in most research with children, and it isn't because researchers have a bias where they only ask mothers. For whatever reason, fathers are less likely to choose to participate in such research. Therefore, they tend to publish data only on mothers because there simply isn't enough on fathers to be relevant. It's problematic in that we never see the whole picture, and there is an assumption (or perceived possibility) that mothers and fathers may differ in statistically significant ways... this is why they don't report on "parents." I wouldn't shoot the researchers based on this fact at all, because it is an empirically sound method in that field.

Certainly in our case, I do

Certainly in our case, I do books, crafts, food prep, and Papa does sport and flora/fauna. I was not raised as a free-range child and, as much as I relish the awe that nature imparts, I never seem to "get around" to going outside the apartment. Sure, I *know* stuff about bugs and mice and cloud formations, but exploring a soggy, awakening forest this morning? My husband's idea.
If these studies are self-report anyhow, how badly could it damage credibility to ask mothers to reply on their male partners' roles?

This blog addresses a vital

This blog addresses a vital issue, and while doing so it conjures up such rich imagery of the natural world that my soul is salivating! It cannot be overstated how important it is for ALL OF US to go outdoors in order to nourish ourselves, our sanity, and our sense of wonder. It's a fairly simple yet often neglected way for a person to look outside of herself, as you mentioned, to gain some perspective. Thank you, Alison!

Why girls do not go outdoors enough as boys?

Before reading this article I thought parents might not take little girls outdoors as much as boys in fear of something bad happening to their little girl. All in the news media we hear about violence against women and young girls being kidnapped. However, we cannot keep girls locked in a cage for fear of what the outside world will bring. Some parents keep their daughters indoors because they do not want them to scar their knees because as girls we are supposed to be pretty and neat, according to society views. Boys are taught to be tough, rough, athletic, and active therefore they may adventure outside more than girls. If we are keeping girls inside and letting boys go outside the home then we are encouraging the public/private spheres system where men go outside the home to work in the public while women are left to household duties. We are teaching girls to stay inside and play like a lady or to cook or clean but boys get to go have fun. Parents need to be careful of the message they are sending to their children about genders.

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