Children are drawn to the outdoors, they have a sense of wonder surrounding them that nature helps to cultivate as they experience things for the first time. Humans brains are also hardwired for play, throughout life not just in childhood. There is much research showing the vast array of benefits produced by spending time in nature and playing. The fact these two activities are so good for us is not just a co-incidence, we were designed by nature to engage in them and experience the positive outcomes.
Research confirms that time outdoors can improve both our physical and mental health. Our bodies produce vitamin D; it can lower rates of heart disease, osteoporosis and some cancers. It helps to lower obesity rates, creates more positive moods, lowers anxiety, stress and depression, and helps to create better focus, particularly for those diagnosed with ADHD. Children who grow up on farms have less asthma and allergies due to the environmental diversity they experience. This is through the contact they have with microorganisms from plants and animals and the effect this has on the development of their immune system. Research also shows that prolonged periods outdoors promotes good eye health. When children are outdoors they are moving and using their body in many different ways, such as, walking, running, jumping, skipping, climbing, balancing, digging, throwing, catching etc. This is great for their physical health and helps to maintain a healthy weight. The more time spent outside, the less time spent indoors sitting still or in front of screens, such as televisions, smart phones and computers, which can be damaging to eye-sight and have a negative impact on weight and moods.
Despite the growing amount of research highlighting the importance of lifestyles that prioritise time outdoors, recent studies provide worrying statistics showing that children today spend less time outside than ever before. Reports suggest that children spend only half the time their parents did playing outside, and three-quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. In 2014, a UK based market research firm called ‘Childwise’, conducted a study called ‘The Connected Kids Report’ into the media habits of Children aged 5 to 16 years old. The study found that children within these age ranges spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen, compared with around three hours in 1995. These figures show that whilst time spent outside is rapidly diminishing, time in front of screens is dramatically on the rise. Children are replacing being active, outdoors, socialising, playing and contributing, with being engrossed in screen-time. It is therefore no coincidence that the rates of obesity have tripled since the 1970’s and that stress, anxiety and depression are at an all-time high. The benefits of being outdoors on our physical and mental health should be a primary focus to help reduce and combat this concerning data.
On a personal note, this summer I found a new love of gardening, brought on by the incredible weather we were blessed with. To coincide with this, I have recently added a new member to my family - a small puppy, and have naturally started spending more time outside, walking and exploring new places. I’ve discovered coastal walks and beaches with views that have taken my breath away; and spent hours strolling through stunning parks and forests seeing the natural wonder of seasonal changes before my eyes. I have also been ‘playing’ more than I have in years, ignited by my puppies love of play. All of this has re-awakened a sense of liberation and freedom within myself, by allowing more time to have fun, engaging in things that bring me joy and simply being present, as oppose to believing I should be spending more time being serious, busy with work, planning and chores etc. Researcher Stuart Brown, MD, describes play as, “Time spent without purpose.” Play is simply doing things purely because they’re fun and for no other reason. All of this has made me delve deeper into the benefits of play and nature, and there appears to be much cross over between the two.
Spending time outside with children is free and easy. Simply going out into the garden, creating gardening patches, going to parks, forests, beaches, etc is available to us all. The outdoors creates rich learning opportunities for children and a sense of freedom that cannot be re-created indoors. Children actively learn through exploration and observation, experiencing life cycles, seasonal changes and engaging all of their senses, which heightens the learning experience and the strength of the memory attached. Spending time planting and growing outdoors, shows children first-hand where different food comes from and how to care for plants and vegetables. Gardening is also known to support children’s preference and consumption of fruit and vegetables, through their awareness and appreciation of the growing process. Looking after plants and animals also helps to foster co-operation, working together and curiosity. Children are able to grasp a deeper understanding of the natural cycles of life and our interconnectedness. This is invaluable in introducing children to the importance of the environment and our role in protecting it. They learn how we all need the sun, plants, clean air and water to survive. Humans have changed the chemistry of soil with artificial fertilisers and the chemistry of the air; when we breathe in we inhale 42% more carbon dioxide than in 1750. Not to mention the impact we have had on climate change and Ozone depletion. It is essential and our responsibility to take care of the planet and the plants and animals that inhabit it, if we don’t there will be no nature for our children and future generations to enjoy when they grow up. Nature isn’t just areas untouched by humanity, it is anywhere the presence of life is thriving due to the environment enabling this. Children need to learn how to protect and nurture the environment, in order to maintain and support the continued development of life.
Children spend a large portion of their time at nursery and school, both of these establishments should therefore prioritise the importance of spending time outside and creating rich outdoor environments. It is important that regular windows of timetabled periods in the outdoors are embedded for children throughout the day. Ideally in Early Years settings there would be no boundary between the indoors and outdoors, children would be able to experience free flow to the outside area and for it to be used as an extension of the classroom, as opposed to a separate commodity. Time spent outside helps children to relax, have fun, play, re-charge and return to lessons energised and more focussed. Studies show that play improves our ability to work, it stimulates creativity, increases openness to change, provides a sense of purpose and improves our ability to learn new information. Researcher Brene Brown, says that, “Play is anything that makes us lose track of time and self-consciousness, creating the clearing where ideas are born.” Time spent playing and being outdoors, therefore nurtures creative and innovative thinkers and improves academic performance.
One of the most magical things about the outdoors and nature is the power it has to break through barriers. It removes many of the limitations that are imposed upon children indoors, such as quietness and enclosed spaces, which can often create anxieties, worry and self-consciousness in many children. I have witnessed first-hand children who feel uncomfortable and don’t speak indoors, come to life in the outdoors, talking, asking questions, sharing their knowledge and wonder without fear or anxiety. They have creative bursts of ideas and become leaders in their play and learning. I have heard many similar cases of adults witnessing this change in children when outside. If nature has the power to do this, then just imagine what other amazing and positive impacts it can have on the development of children.
Being in touch with nature every day is a right, as stated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is necessary in order to help children to develop to the fullest, to live peacefully and to learn about their responsibility to the environment. But, how much time is enough? The Centres for Disease Control advises, ‘children to have an hour per day of moderate physical activity to burn calories, tone muscles and keep weight under control.’ The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that children should, ‘get enough exercise and also have an hour per day to unwind, relax and have some simple creative play time.’
In order to support the holistic development of our children and their physical and mental health, we must realise the importance of prioritising time outdoors, engaging in play and making appropriate time for relaxation. Many of us today see the idea of rest as a luxury, that we don’t have time for in out hectic lives. Our children are busier than ever, with their calendars booked up with extra-curricular activities. In reality though, being constantly on the go isn’t a status symbol to be proud of, it drains our bodies and minds of energy and exhaustion can quickly creep in. If children are constantly booked up with busy schedules, or in front of a screen, not only can it have detrimental effects on their health and development, they miss out on the invaluable opportunity to pause, find their creative flow and explore the beauty and wonder of the world and life all around them.