I’d like to take you back to an earlier time, a time of endless summers, muddy puddles, climbing trees, making daisy chains, football in the street, the smell of fresh grass and bonfires in the air. Most adults when asked to recall their childhood will remember playing outdoors so why it is that increasingly our children are being kept in doors? A range of factors are contributing to a generation of sedentary children. The media have increased parental fear of stranger danger and accidents, we as parents are under increasing pressure through social media to ensure our children are achieving in formal programmed activities leaving less time for enjoying the outdoors. We have less access to outdoor space with new builds putting more Importance on indoor space and there is increasing use of things with a plug even amongst babies and toddlers!
So what do our children gain from moving away from programmed activity and switching off the devices and going outside to do something more interesting instead?
Spending time in natural environments makes children have a sense of belonging and security, they become more grounded you may say!.Just five minutes’ “green exercise” can produce rapid improvements in mental wellbeing and self-esteem, with the greatest benefits experienced by the young, according to a study this year at the University of Essex. It helps them grow up with pro-environment attitudes and feelings of being connected to the natural world, and is also associated with a stronger sense of place. Spending time in nature also leads to improvements in mental health and emotional regulation. Free and unstructured play in the outdoors boosts problem-solving skills, focus and self-discipline. Socially, it improves cooperation, flexibility, and self-awareness. Emotional benefits include reduced aggression and increased happiness. The American Medical Association in 2005 stated “Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors.”
The outdoors supports greater physical activity. Children who regularly play out and spend time in nature are less likely to suffer from obesity and have better risk assessment skills. Play in natural environments leads to improvements in both gross and fine motor skills for pre-school children. The outdoors is the very best place for preschoolers to practice and master emerging physical skills. It is in the outdoors that children can fully and freely experience motor skills like running, leaping, and jumping. It is also the most appropriate area for the practice of ball-handling skills, like throwing, catching, and striking. And children can perform other such manipulative skills as pushing a swing, pulling a vehicle, and lifting and carrying movable objects. The outdoors offers a wide range of loose parts that can be manipulated in to other things supporting imaginative play, role play and construction. From grass nests to woodland dens nature provides materials to fuel stories and songs developing both language and literacy alongside problem solving, mastery of construction and negotiation skills.
The outdoors offers a wider and more varied palette for learning. The colours, smells, tastes and textures help your children learn not just about themselves and the world around them but also supports development of language and formal learning. Outside there are many different and amazing things to see a squirrel collecting nuts, the changing colours of autumn, the clouds whizzing through the sky; to hear, the wind rustling through the leaves, a crow cawing, sticks snapping underfoor; to smell, stinky flowers, the rain-soaked ground, freshly cut grass; to touch soft leaves, the bark of a tree, wet mud between our toes, and even to taste rain drops on our tongue, newly fallen snow or blackberries straight from the bush. Children using all their senses in this way develop deeper perceptual abilities than those who choose to spend more time indoors.
Hopefully the evidence in this article has convinced you of the benefits so here’s a few tips to make time outdoors successful:
- Make sure your child has access to weather appropriate clothing, Wainwright said “there is no such thing as bad weather only unsuitable clothing!” Good warm waterproofs and wellies are a must in the winter but also remember that your children are running about so layers which can be removed are key.
- Give your child permission, often we stop our children painting with mud or running barefoot in the garden, this sensory experiences helps us grow and allow children to form their own risk assessment skills. Ask yourself why you are saying no to your child is it because you don’t want to clean up or is it a real risk?
- Allow them space and time to explore. Remember the outdoors offers new experiences which may need to be experienced more than once before a child is comfortable with them
- Most of all have fun yourself, if your child sees you are happy and confident outdoors it will spur them on to enjoy it too and develop through playing and being outdoors.
Rachel Murray is a Playwork consultant and a Forest School Practitioner. She has three children of her own aged 9 and 7 and 7. Her working life has been dedicated to ensuring children and young people have the space, time and experiences to help them grow and develop in to well-rounded individuals.