Do you remember playing in the “great outdoors” as a kid?It was always fun to be outside with friends, whether talking, cycling, walking or playing games and sports. As dusk fell, we knew it was time to go home for supper or get ready for bed. Many times parents had to come and get us because we were having so much fun outside that we lost track of time. In an age of cable TV, play stations, Facebook and YouTube today's children are simply not experiencing as much active play time as their parents did. A big majority of kids play indoors more often than out. Well, it obviously can't do any harm to know a bit about the natural world beyond the screen and the front door.
A growing body of evidence is starting to show that it's not so much what children know about nature that's important, as what happens to them when they are in nature. Respectable scientists – doctors, mental health experts, educationalists, sociologists – are beginning to suggest that when kids stop going out into the natural world to play, it can affect not just their development as individuals, but society as a whole.
Gone are the days when children climbed trees, built dens, and collected birds' eggs and frogspawn. Today, parents don't even want their kids to get dirty. Parents should understand that it is beneficial for kids to be outside more often and should increase and enhance outdoor play for their kids.
It's a problem we need to address because the consequences of failing to allow our children to play independently outside are beginning to make themselves felt. Time spent in free play in the natural world has a huge impact on children’s health.
Obesity is perhaps the most visible symptom of the lack of such play, but literally, dozens of studies from around the world show regular time outdoors produces significant improvements in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning ability, creativity and mental, psychological and emotional well-being. Playing outdoors gives kids a chance to burn off energy, and boosts problem-solving skills, focus and self-discipline. Socially, it improves cooperation, flexibility, and self-awareness. Emotional benefits include reduced aggression and increased happiness. 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 outdoors. Additionally, it helps to develop their powers of observation and their assessment of risk.
Almost all children (and adults) have a "natural attraction" to the outdoors, playing outside, and learning about nature. It's important to allow and encourage our kids to spend lots of time in the natural world. They can "connect" with the outdoors and nature by climbing trees, wading in streams, lying in tall grass, inventing games, or just digging in the sand or mud! It's not rocket science; if the kids are outside, they will find any number of ways to play in natural settings. Interacting often with nature, and with other kids outside, helps to stimulate the curiosity and creativity of children, and also boosts their confidence as they learn new things.
Outdoor time is vital for kids of all ages, but it's especially good for younger children to learn and grow as they explore local parks, different water bodies like creeks or ponds, playgrounds, walking trails and other natural settings. Parents and caregivers can be with children during these activities and interact with them along the way, or they can supervise them from nearby. With a little freedom and independence while outdoors and a bit of guidance or supervision from an adult, a child can learn a lot and get health benefits from every outdoor experience. Older children can be given wider boundaries and guidelines, and allowed to roam a little further and explore on their own.
Ask anyone over 40 to recount their most treasured memories of childhood play, and few will be indoors. Independent play, outdoors and far from grown-up eyes, is what we remember. As things stand, today's children will be unlikely to treasure memories like that.