If you’re like most adults, you probably spent a lot of your childhood in the great outdoors—climbing trees, building cubbies, playing sports or riding bikes until sunset. But the same cannot be said for children today. A 2016 National Trust survey of 1000 Australian parents found our children are spending only four hours a week playing outdoors on average, which is half as much as we did.
Researchers attribute this to our increased access to technology, a fear of children being alone outside in an unsafe world, and a shift to high-density apartment living and smaller backyards.
The importance of outdoor play
Outdoor play enables children to recharge their batteries and enhance their well-being via activities that are not possible through indoor experiences. Outdoor play also strengthens children’s ability to learn, improves behaviour and provides them with a deep connection to their environment.
Outdoor play is one of the best ways for children to stay active, through running, jumping, climbing, rolling and skipping. These activities also help children develop their gross motor muscles, balance and coordination. Exposure to big spaces is important for developing long distance vision too.
Healthy levels of sun exposure can help children soak up the vitamin D they need for strong bones, to fight diseases and to support their emotional well-being. This is important given the growing number of children presenting with vitamin D deficiency.
Playing in the dirt can also expose children to bacteria to build up their immunity. A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology shows that being exposed to allergens before the age of one can help prevent allergies developing.
We are seeing more and more children presenting with anxiety and depression at a young age. Access to the outdoors is a proven way to improve wellbeing. In fact, "Green Therapy,” or “Ecotherapy” as it’s sometimes known, is gaining the attention of researchers, nature enthusiasts and people looking to improve their mental wellbeing.
A recent study by the University of Essex in England found that taking a walk for 45 minutes in nature reduced depression scores in 71 per cent of participants. Researchers compared the effect with a control group who also took a walk, but in a shopping centre. Only 45 per cent of the shopping centre walkers had reduced depression scores, while 22 per cent felt more depressed.
Learning and development
Outdoor play enables children to approach and manage risks, an important part of a child’s development. Children can practice setting challenges, becoming aware of their limits and pushing their abilities at their own pace. Children are very good at assessing what distances they can jump, how high to climb and how to navigate challenging pathways. Sure, they will make mistakes, but this is all part of the learning process. And the more we allow children to do this, the more confident they become. It also alleviates the desire to take reckless risks when they are finally let loose as teenagers.
Playing outside in all seasons
Being outside offers children a dynamic and ever changing environment. Consider the changes that different seasons bring to smells, sounds and colours.
Sometimes parents worry that it's too cold or too hot to play outside. But there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes. As long as you are prepared with hats, sunscreen or warm winter clothes, there is no reason to stay indoors. Studies show children in Scandinavian countries, where infants sleep outside in prams all year round, have stronger immune systems than children who are cooped up in artificially heated environments.
Letting children “be” in nature
Often we can stifle creative play by enforcing rules such as “don’t climb too high” or “no playing with sticks.” Yet to optimise children’s learning experience in the great outdoors, adults need to step back and allow children the time to explore, use their imaginations and get dirty.
Outdoor play ideas
Even if you don’t have access to a big backyard, there’s lots you can do to ensure your child spends quality time in nature.
Use your weekends wisely
In Australian we are lucky to have a wide range of parks and wide open spaces where children explore, discover and connect with nature. Research playgrounds and parks online and choose a different place of interest to visit each weekend. Rivers, creeks, beaches and nature reserves are a great place to start.
Grow your own
If it is difficult to access parks or green spaces, why not create your own? Herbs and plants can be grown in pots, or even ice-cream containers, to give children opportunity to grow and nurture their own greenery.
Taking a 10-minute walk around your neighbourhood gives children an opportunity to learn about the variety of trees, plants and wildlife in your area. This gives children an insight into their local natural environment.
Choosing early childhood services
When choosing an early childhood service for your child, pay attention to its philosophy on outdoor play. Many education and care settings offer indoor/outdoor programs and have a focus on natural materials. There are many wonderful nature programs available now that enable children freedom to explore the natural environment in a supervised space. Bush kinder is a great example.
Children should have access to outdoors every day. Anywhere, anytime is a good time to start!