Why playing outside should be your kid's first choice
Some of my favourite moments are spent reminiscing about my childhood and how I used to play outside. My sister and I would spend endless amounts of hours building a fort out of crates and carrying half of my mothers’ kitchen out of her cupboards and into our newly designed home; just to have a sandwich on a crate as a chair. We also shared my older sisters upcycled bicycle. To make sure that we would both have an equal amount of time rolling down the hill (and into the single tree at the bottom of the driveway) my parents used an egg timer that would go off every 15 minutes and then it was time to hop off, watch my sister ride, and plan how I would not hit the tree on my next turn.
Looking back at the amount of time I spent outside climbing trees and running around in make-believe games, I can’t help but wonder what today’s generation is missing out on. Watching TV was a treat! Tom and Jerry was the first cartoon show I had ever watched and every time I wanted to spend some time watching what that little mouse and cat got up to, I first had to complete my chore list, read some of my book or practice some piano before asking for permission for the TV remote (that was also well hid) to watch some cartoons. I am sure that I wanted to watched a lot more TV than I did, but as an adult I am grateful for the boundaries imposed by my parents when it came to TV and their encouragement to go outside and play.
So why should the outdoors be your child’s first choice and not the TV or technology? Research has shown that nature has a positive impact on children’s health (Tillmann, Tobin, Avison and Gillard, 2018). Nature has the ability to lower levels of aggression and violence (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001); lower levels of stress (Roe et al., 2013; Larsen & Sullivan, 2016) milder symptoms of ADHD for children who have been formally diagnosed (Faber Taylor & Kuo, 2011) and reduced feelings of distress (White, Alcock, Wheeler & Depledge, 2013). Physical Health benefits also include decreasing the risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease (An, Xiang, Yang & Yan, 2016).
Another study explored the effects of three different leisure activities on anxiety reduction and attention restoration in children. The results showed that moderate leisure activity, such as walking, improved mental health the most compared to chatting, which also reduced anxiety and restored attention, and surfing the internet which failed to significantly improve mental health (Weng & Chiang, 2014).
In a time where children are faced with increased academic pressures we need to create and foster environments that will reduce anxiety and restore their attention. Today’s children do not know how to be bored. It’s a fact. They easily switch from one game to the next, from one device to another and can spend endless amounts of time surfing the internet. They find it easier to turn on the TV and their PlayStation than to be creative by entertaining themselves. The process of play offers ample physical, emotional, cognitive and social benefits. It allows children to develop their motor skills, simulate alternative scenarios, test various behavioural repertories all within a safe and engaging context (Nijhof et al., 2018).
Here are some additional benefits of being outdoors:
Improves quality of sleep
Provides learning opportunities through all senses
Develops gross and fine motor skills
Encourages healthy habits and helps children to burn off energy
Creates an awareness and appreciation for the environment
Promotes socialisation when meeting new kids by being more inventive, learning to take turns, improving communication, cooperation and organisational skills
Daily dose of vitamin D
Good for the development of all senses through sight, smell, touch, and hearing
Increases attention spans as they become more curious and self-directed which will encourage them to stay with a task for longer
Makes people happier through the stimulation of the pineal gland in the brain
So how can you help your child? Learn to say no. Putting a tablet in front of your child might be the easier thing to do but it is not the most beneficial. There is a time and a place for technology but it needs to be used responsibly. Lead by example. Encourage your child to play and be outside. Go for a walk and let them tag along. The fresh air and outdoors will benefit both you, your child and your relationship. Let your child be bored. This will encourage them to be inventive and creative when trying to entertain themselves. Put firm boundaries in place when it comes to spending time using technology. Include your child in the decision-making process by providing their input on when they can watch TV and for how long - however, you are still the adult and the decision ultimately lies with you.
As David Sobel once said, “Children more than ever, need opportunities to be in their bodies in the world – jumping rope, bicycling, stream hopping, and fort building. It’s this engagement between limbs of the body and bones of the earth where true balance and centeredness emerge.” Let’s create opportunities for our children to engage with the great outdoors and to make it their number one hang out spot.
An, R., Xiang, X., Yang, Y., & Yan, H. (2016). Mapping the prevalence of physical inactivity in U.S. States, 1984–2015. PLOS ONE, 11(12), e0168175. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0168175
Bailey, A. W., Allen, G., Herndon, J., & Demastus, C. (2018). Cognitive benefits of walking in natural versus built environments. World Leisure Journal, 60(4), 293-305.Faber Taylor, A., & Kuo, F. E. (2011). Could exposure to everyday green spaces help treat ADHD? Evidence from children's play settings. Applied Psychology-Health and Well Being, 3(3), 281–303.
Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001). Aggression and violence in the inner city: Effects of environment via mental fatigue. Environment and behavior, 33(4), 543–571.
Larson, R., & Ham, M. (1993). Stress and "storm and stress" in early adolescence: The relationship of negative events with dysphoric affect. Developmental psychology, 29(1), 130.
Nijhof, S. L., Vinkers, C. H., van Geelen, S. M., Duijff, S. N., Achterberg, E. M., van der Net, J., ... & van der Brug, A. W. (2018). Healthy play, better coping: The importance of play for the development of children in health and disease. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.
Roe, J. J., Thompson, C. W., Aspinall, P. A., Brewer, M. J., Duff, E. I., Miller, D., et al. (2013). Green space and stress: Evidence from cortisol measures in deprived urban communities. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10(9), 4086–4103.
Tillmann S, Tobin D, Avison W, et al. J Epidemiol Community Health 2018;72:958–966.
Weng, P. Y., & Chiang, Y. C. (2014). Psychological restoration through indoor and outdoor leisure activities. Journal of Leisure Research, 46(2), 203-217.
White, M. P., Alcock, I., Wheeler, B. W., & Depledge, M. H. (2013). Would you be happier living in a greener urban area? A fixed-effects analysis of panel data. Psychological Science, 24(6), 920–928.