Getting kids into nature

Young girl ready to explore nature

At a glance

  • Children spend far less time outdoors than they used to.
  • Unstructured time outside is important for their development.
  • Many parents say they're fearful of letting their kids play outside.
  • Parents can develop strategies to give their kids ‘safe' outdoor time.
  • Schools are helping kids to reconnect with nature.

Today's kids spend far less time outdoors. It's an obvious and pronounced difference to when most of us were younger, and it's beginning to attract the attention of academics and educators, worried that all this time away from the natural world may be causing serious problems.

The phenomenon has even been given its own catchy title, ‘Nature Deficit Disorder', coined by American journalist and co-founder of the Children and Nature Network, Richard Louv.

"Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically," says Richard in his book Last Child in the Woods.

"The polarity of the relationship has been reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading.

"A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rainforest but not the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude or lay in the field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move."

Encourage the school to provide opportunities ... where kids can just play and be kids.Allan Booth NSW Department of Education and Communities

Importance of outside play

But does it really matter if youngsters are spending more of their time indoors on computer games or in cars being shuttled everywhere by their parents, rather than climbing trees and catching cicadas?

According to a growing body of academic evidence, the answer is a resounding "yes".

Spending time outside, ideally in unstructured play, can:

  • help combat obesity in children
  • increase self-esteem and resilience
  • improve academic performance
  • improve social skills
  • help with problems such as attention deficit disorder
  • gain valuable nutrients from sunlight (although care should be taken to avoid sun damage).

University of Wollongong researcher Dr Karen Malone says surveys of parents show the overwhelming reason we are keeping our kids indoors is out of fear.

"The parents say, ‘The world isn't the same place it used to be'. For them, the fear of something happening to their child outweighs the benefits of having a child who is more sociable," she says.

Reconnecting with Mother Nature

So how do parents help reconnect their children with the world outside the front door?

Karen encourages parents to come up with creative ways to allay their own fears while giving their children the chance to explore outside.

For instance, she suggests initially walking to school with your child until you are confident in their ability to cope with the trip. Or parents could let a child play in a park or open space, while keeping a discreet eye on them from a distance.

"It's about you as a parent letting go in small stages," she says.

Allan Booth, a curriculum expert with the NSW Department of Education and Communities, suggests parents find out how their child's school is using unstructured time during recess and lunch.

"Encourage the school to provide opportunities to have unstructured play where there may be equipment and space available where kids can just play and be kids," he says.

After school can be more of a challenge, but letting the kids go outside and play before they do their homework is a good routine to develop, Allan says.

"It's almost like they've got physical activity homework, going out and being active before they sit down."

For families living in apartments, Allan suggests to explore what the local community offers, walking to the shops rather than driving, going home via the park, or finding out from the school or local council what active after-school programs offer unstructured play.

Allan says because kids' lives are so structured these days, unstructured play gives them a chance to be physically active without restrictions.

"It lets them explore movement and play in a natural unbridled way," he says.


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