My last article was about the importance of outdoor play and the consequences of not getting enough time outdoors. Most kids nowadays spend less than an hour a day outside – the lowest of any generation. Their parents spent about two-and-a-half more hours outside when they were kids.
I’ve listed a large number of benefits that come along with outdoor play (or another way to put it – ‘unstructured’ playtime), and now another surprising benefit is coming to light.
Photo: “Elisa-training” by gronman www.gronmanphotos.com https://flic.kr/p/irVZhu is licensed under a Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Recent research suggests that spending more time outdoors might be crucial for the health of our eyes.
It’s a theory that’s gaining traction with researchers to help explain the dramatic increase in myopia, also called shortsightedness or nearsightedness.
Myopia has become a global health problem. In some Asian countries like Singapore, Taiwan and China, a whopping 80 – 90 percent of children and young adolescents are shortsighted. And in the United States and Europe, figures show that myopia has doubled in the last 20 years.
Myopia is a problem where objects nearby are clear and objects far away become blurry. It’s caused by the eye being slightly too long, which means the lens focuses light from far objects slightly in front of the retina, rather than directly on it.
Because the eye grows mostly throughout childhood, myopia generally develops in school-age children and adolescents.
Sadly, most children aren’t aware of their vision deficiencies – they think what they see is what everybody else sees – and they’re not able to clearly articulate how their vision problem affects their learning in school.
For many years, myopia was thought to be an inherited condition. But at some point it became obvious that genes couldn’t be the only cause.
Theories about a connection between the amount of reading or ‘near work’ a person does and its effects on the eyes emerged.
In my book “Unleash the Secret of Education” I write about the relationship between myopia and increased amounts of sustained near-focus activities such as television, computer and video games and more recently, being glued to tablets and smartphone screens.
I also point out one very crucial factor – the importance of outdoor play for the healthy development of the eye. Although experts can’t yet exactly say what it is about being outdoors that protects children from becoming myopic, they know that it’s helping more than just a little.
It might be exposure to visual opportunities for far distance vision and exposure to beneficial microorganism. There are quite a few different hypothesis about this but the one that stands out the most is exposure to sunlight.
Bright sunlight has been known to stimulate the release of dopamine in the retina. And retinal dopamine in turn blocks the elongated growth of the eye during development. Based on different studies, researchers estimate that children need to spend around three hours per day under light levels of at least 10,000 lux to be protected against myopia. Sitting outside on a bright summer day in the shade (and wearing sunglasses) will easily get us to 10,000 lux. Whereas even a very well lit classroom or office space will only get us to a measure of about 500 lux (stepping outside in the middle of the day will get us about 100,000 lux).
Since there’s a huge difference in indoor and outdoor lighting levels, we have to make sure our children are spending enough time outdoors.
Myopic changes are generally permanent. They don’t get better with treatment. Therefore, treatment has to be designed to stop the progression of myopia or perhaps prevent it from ever starting. And the younger the child, the better the chances for success.
Meanwhile, researchers have been trying to find other ways to stop myopia from worsening.
They’ve experimented with powerful indoor lighting. The light boxes used for treating seasonal affective disorder, for example, can also deliver up to 10,000 lux illumination. They’ve also tried special glasses and contact lenses, developed to focus light from distant objects differently than standard lenses do. Nightly eye drops with a neurotransmitter-blocking drug called atropine are also being tested.
But there’s nothing appealing about eye drops and light boxes if children can be outside instead, playing and enjoying all the other great benefits besides those for the eyes.
Let’s take action. It’s a win and it’s free!