Prisoners the world over are characteristically defined by their inability to move freely. Inmates at the Wabash maximum security prison in Indiana, however, were recently shocked to learn about one group that enjoys less time outdoors than they do: children.

A global survey conducted on children’s time outdoors quickly became an ongoing campaign called “Dirt is Good” after the findings showed a concerning lack of outdoor playtime among children aged five to twelve. The results of the survey, commissioned by British laundry company Persil and conducted by an independent market research firm, revealed ⅓ of British children spend 30 minutes or less outside every day — and that one in five does not play outside at all on an average day. The researchers surveyed 12,000 parents spanning 10 countries: the United States, Brazil, U.K., Turkey, Portugal, South Africa, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, and India.

The Dirt is Good initiative was founded based on the survey, and the short film of the same name, which features interviews with inmates, reports that “on average, children now spend less time outdoors than a prison inmate.” According to Dirt is Good, inmates receive at least two hours of time outside every day while most children enjoy an hour or less.

The inmates interviewed in the short film expressed the importance of their outdoor time.

“I think it’s probably the most important part of my day,” one inmate says. It “keeps my mind right, keeps my body strong,” another explains. Yet another calls his time outside “pretty much the highlight of my day.”

The inmates were then asked how they would feel if their time outside were reduced from two hours per day to one. “I think it’s gonna build more anger, more — it’s not gonna be a good thing,” one inmate observes. Another says it would be “torture,” while a guard says, “I think cutting the offenders’ outside time to an hour a day is . . . potentially disastrous.”

When the interviewer tells the inmates that children often receive only one hour of outdoor time per day, they are shocked, if not speechless. “That’s depressing,” one comments. “Climb a tree, break a leg; that’s part of life,” another says. “If you don’t have to throw the kids in the bathtub, they haven’t played hard enough,” the guard tells the camera.

“Learn to be a kid, ” yet another inmate observes.

The Dirt is Good campaign’s comparison between inmates and children is particularly fitting, considering critics of public education have pointed out the “criminalization of school spaces” and the resemblance of schools, at least in the United States, to heavily regulated prison environments.

However, prison-like atmospheres, in general, are not the only problem.

As the Washington Post summarized in an article about children being forced to “sit still” in class:

“The problem: children are constantly in an upright position these days. It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues, and the hectic schedules of modern-day society.”

The Post conducted its own study on several classrooms with seemingly ‘hyperactive’ children who had trouble sitting still, finding not just a lack of movement, but physical ramifications from the lack of activity. Noting that “many children are walking around with underdeveloped vestibular (balance) system[s]” due to restricted movement. Post columnist Valerie Strauss argued that “In order to develop a strong balance system, children need to move their body in all directions, for hours at a time. Just like with exercising, they need to do this more than just once-a-week in order to reap the benefits.”

Whatever the cause of children’s reduction in time outdoors — whether excessive rigidity in schools, increased time on electronic devices, or parental fears about their child’s safety, for example — experts agree it’s a problem that must be addressed. The Dirt is Good campaign has launched a variety of initiatives to encourage outdoor play, including an “Empty the Classroom” day scheduled for June and tips for parents on gardening, outdoor excursions, and other ways to increase outdoor activity for children. The Dirt is Good campaign is chaired by two well-respected doctors who specialize in children and physical activity, as well as creativity.

While some may gripe that the campaign is sponsored by a corporation — Persil is owned by Unilever — the project nevertheless advocates positive changes for children and offers suggestions to help parents improve their children’s lives. Further, it provides an example of harnessing corporate power, which is often and rightly reviled, to effect change; regardless of the sponsor, the message is vital.

As one prisoner said:

“I didn’t know what freedom was until it was taken from me. It’s devastating. I’ve had who I am inside inside stripped away. You can never escape the wall. You can never escape your mind. Then imagine they open your door; you have time to walk out that door and feel the sun on your face. It’s everything to me.”


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