Computers, television and video games are fast becoming a major element in children’s play as more and more children are spending their playtime indoors and in front of a screen. For generations born prior to the rise of the internet, many will nostalgically reminisce on childhoods spent riding bikes, climbing trees, and getting dirty outside amongst the fresh air. Nowadays in metropolitan areas across the country, children are overall much less likely to have access to natural surroundings and green spaces. Rosemary Davis is the Director in charge of the NSW Government’s eleven sport and recreation centres – community facilities boasting many hundreds of hectares of pristine countryside. She says: “The outdoors provides limitless potential for discovery and exploration. It confronts children with positive experiences of vitality and complexity, but imposes no agenda on them. This is in stark contrast to the artificial stimulus often presented by digital entertainment where children have to make decisions to get to the next level of the game”.
The latest research from Deakin University shows that there is a growing link between physical activity, nature and health and the shift to indoor play is raising health concerns that include obesity and poorer cognitive development. According to research, author Dr Mardi Townsend, an associate professor from Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development, there is also a lack of recognition and understanding of the environment.
The article, which featured in one of Deakin’s publications*, noted that outdoor play is a vital element in children’s growth and healthy development. It allows children to be children and has been found to hold a range of wonderful benefits for a child’s cognitive expansion. It has been reported to increase physical activity, reduce anxiety, improve mood and promote problem solving and leadership. Dr Townsend believes nature based activities can also be a good antidote to childhood stressors and some of the behavioural issues attached to ADHD and ADD.
There are three types of outdoor play, backyard play, playground play and wild nature play. Backyard unstructured, free play allows children to use their imaginations whilst building dexterity and physical strength. The playground is the best place for children to take advantage of open spaces and fine tune their motor skills by being physical and adventurous. They can freely practise running, climbing, swinging, jumping and learn ball handling skills such as throwing and catching.
In their own backyards children can perform constructive play by creating objects using their natural environment and employing their imagination to do so. Playing outdoors with others enables children to improve and increase their social skills and gives them the opportunity to develop relationships with their peers. Increasing evidence suggests that children who have access to wild nature play will gain innumerable cognitive, problem solving, emotional and physical benefits.
Rosemary says “A creative engagement with nature is instrumental in building a strong sense of self and this is the basis of understanding and communicating concepts about the world. These concepts are building blocks of later success in social and educational situations”.
Although children’s lives today are becoming more contained in smaller living environments, there are many ways that parents can contribute to fulfilling children’s basic needs for experimentation, physical activity, adventure and social interaction.
Fortunately in Australia we have an abundance of bushland and a magnificent natural outdoor environment for children to immerse themselves in. Parents can play a significant role in recognising a child’s need for outdoor play by getting them out of the house and down to the park, buying them active gifts such as bicycles, skipping ropes, Frisbees and sporting equipment and encouraging them to appreciate and spend time in a natural outdoor environment.
Here are ten fun ways for parents to encourage children to experience the great outdoors via outdoor play:
Create a homemade tent. Find an area where children can make their own tent or cubby house. You’ll need a couple of old sheets, clothes pegs a blanket and some rope. Just attach the rope between two trees or poles and the sheet on either side secure with a rock. Children will have hours of fun in their new home.
Plant something and watch it grow. Children love to participate in the process of growing things in a garden. Many schools are encouraging children to be involved in school gardens. Even if you live in an apartment a windowsill garden is a great place to start.
Try water painting. All children need for this activity is a bucket of water and a brush. Children can paint the side of a building, learn about evaporation and exercise at the same time.
Create a simple treasure hunt. A treasure hunt can also be played indoors, if you are really struggling to find space but its best to be played outdoors so that children can discover their natural environment. Hide treasure and plant clues for children to use their cognitive skills and imagination.
Design and build an obstacle course. If you have access to a backyard or park, why not set up a mini obstacle course? You can use old tyres, pillows, cardboard boxes, chairs, buckets, hoops and rope. Obstacle courses are designed to improve gross motor skills and general co-ordination. Children can also learn the concepts of over, under and through and decision making.
Plan and take part in an Australian Bush Walk. A bush walk is an excellent way for children to discover and appreciate our unique natural environment. They can use their senses by seeing, hearing, smelling and touching and discovering simple things like the roughness of a tree trunk, the smoothness of pebbles and rocks in a stream or the crunchiness of a dried leaves underfoot. They can marvel at our native animals and listen to the sounds of birds.
Plan a sporting match or join a sporting club. Children can develop their sporting skills and learn how to work as part of a team. It will keep them on their toes and encourage physical activity. Bike riding can be fun too and can get the whole family outdoors.
Discover camp. NSW Sport and Recreation Centres are a great way for your child to get active, try different experiences and meet new friends. They will develop skills in a fun, secure and professionally run environment. Children will be able to try new things, make new friends and really come out of their shell. Kids camps are available on the school holidays, or through schools.
Visit Go Play. A FREE activities calendar for parents and care-givers which features lots of affordable, family-friendly, educational and fun outdoor activities for the whole family. Mobile users can download the free Go Play iPhone app at the App store too.
Book an active family holiday. NSW Sport and Recreation Centres offer family camps and self-contained accommodation. You can book for a small or large group. Enjoy an adventurous family holiday and learn abseiling, kayaking and canoeing.
Written by Lee Holmes
*This article appeared in Deakin’s current affairs and research magazine d-mag, in 2012.