Why children thrive in the outdoors
I am heading out the door, off for a bushwalk to clear my mind and get away from the great indoors. I stop at the front door near my teenage son’s bedroom when I hear a whirring sound then my son’s hushed voice talking to someone. I recognise the tell-tale signals of an Xbox and his readiness for another round of battles with his team of online gamers. I poke my head around his bedroom door, look at his teenage bedroom mess and gadgetry scattered here and there and ask my prostrate son whether he would care to join me for a bushwalk. With a look of confusion and distaste, a grimace merging with incredulity, he quickly gives his response without any verbal expression. The prospect of being in nature is an anathema to the virtual world of gaming he inhabits.
Most parents of teens and under will understand this world of teenage retreat into their private spaces, their technological immersion, whether it be in the Xbox, computer games or social media. While this trend of increasing indoor play has been happening over the past 40 years, it is really within the past 10 to 20 years with the advent of gaming (especially online games) and social media that this virtual world has so dominated the lives of younger people, including those in their 20s.
The consequence of this is a reduction in time spent playing or interacting with others in nature or the outdoors in all its permutations, with the exception of organised youth sporting activities. While kids do get outdoors for unorganised play, of course, it is substantially less than it used to be. What are the consequences of this and how can you as a parent encourage your kids to spend more time outdoors?
Childhood play’s changing nature
In 2011, the Australian environmental organisation Planet Ark commissioned a report and associated online survey of over 1000 people aged between 14 and 65 to investigate childhood interaction with nature — current and past — and how this interaction is changing. It found that within a single generation we have become a nation of indoor sitters, with only one in 10 children playing outside once a week. It found a substantial decline in the amount of time spent outdoors, with parents reporting that only 35 per cent of their children played outdoors every day, compared to 72 per cent of respondents saying that they played outdoors every day as kids themselves. Studies have indicated that the primary reasons for this reduced outdoor playtime are increasing preference for watching television, gaming, computer games and social media; perceptions of increased threats from crime; and parents’ lack of time or supervision.
The growth of television, internet and video game cultures, alongside the decrease in opportunities for experiential play, has taken away the type of outdoor play that helped children explore, understand and appreciate their local environments. Even when children get outdoors, it’s often more likely to be for supervised or structured activities such as sports. We are therefore seeing a vastly different approach to childhood and teenage free time or playtime than previous generations. The vastly reduced outdoors time means much less interaction with the natural world.
The term Nature-Deficit Disorder describes the effects of this enforced alienation from outdoors play and exploration. It is not a medical term but rather a reference to wellbeing outcomes of inadequate physical activity outside, such as diminished perceptual capacity, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses from diminished immune functioning.
Impacts of excessive indoor lifestyles
These days, indoor time is substantially dominated by technology and physical inactivity. Some estimates put the screen time of children at up to four hours each day. There are consequences of this. The sedentary nature of excessive indoor living, along with increased caloric intake, is perhaps a significant contributing factor to the global obesity epidemic. The close links between obesity, depression, stress and anxiety indicate there is likely to be a high cost to mental health if the current generation does not change its sedentary, indoor lifestyles. Indeed, some social commentators have expressed the concern that the increased sedentary nature of modern living is undermining physical and psychological wellbeing of children and adults and this may lead to decreased life expectancy.
There may be positive impacts of children’s use of certain strategy or adventure computer and game-station games. Skills that may be developed include problem solving and logic, hand-eye co-ordination, multitasking and managing multiple objectives, concentration and memory, and teamwork with multi-player games.
A 2013 study by Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development and St Hedwig Hospital found in those who played Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day over two months a significant grey-matter increase in regions of the brain that are crucial for spatial navigation, strategic planning, working memory and motor performance. While indoor play does not always involve heavy or addictive use of screens, it invariably does for many children. There are numerous potential negative consequences of excessive television, computer and game-station use. These include:
- An increase in impulsive behaviour and attention problems.
- Through addictive behaviour towards gaming, children are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, social phobia and reduced school performance, according to the US National Institute for Media and the Family.
- Games can both hurt and help children’s attention issues. They can improve the ability to concentrate in short bursts but damage long-term concentration.
- Deleterious effects on health, including obesity, seizures and postural, muscular and skeletal disorders, such as tendonitis, nerve compression and carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Children who play more violent video games are more likely to have increased aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
- Social isolation, particularly face-to-face interaction.
Benefits of nature-based activities
Most adults, especially those who continue to visit natural areas on a regular basis, understand the many positive impacts of the natural world on the human psyche and body. Countless research has demonstrated the many psychological, physiological and spiritual benefits of spending time in natural places. For example, a 2005 study looking at the benefits of nature-based activities in Melbourne primary schools reported a range of mental and social benefits. These included increased care for living things, better understanding of the cycles of nature, such as nutrients and life and death, increased calmness, reduced disruptive behaviour, improved attitudes towards school and increased self-esteem and confidence.
Despite increased opportunities associated with school environmental and outdoor programs, younger people are spending less and less regular and sustained time in natural areas. This loss of direct and meaningful contact can detract from physical and psychological wellbeing given the numerous benefits that have been identified for children playing or hanging out in natural areas. These benefits include calmness, emotional wellbeing, enjoyment, the ability to forget problems, opportunities for self-reflection, reduction of negative behaviours, increased motor development, expansion of their sense of identity and autonomy, increased mental resilience and learning healthy behaviours.
Get your kids outside
Whether it is in natural areas, the backyard or local parks, it is clearly important for parents to get their kids away from the screens, off their backsides and outside in a physically active way. But how can you overcome the resistance of your children to letting go of their screen entertainment or hanging around the house? Here are a few obvious, and not so obvious, suggestions.
- Build outdoor time into your children’s free time each day — and limit screen time. Limit screen time to less than two hours per school day, with preferably none before school. Come to an agreement with your child about the right mix of daily screen time, playtime, chores and/or study time, and set penalties for too much screen time. It’s easier to establish rules of playtime from an young age, so begin early: if not, you may need to use discipline and/or incentives to encourage a new regime. Counter resistance with firm direction, including an explanation of why it’s important to be active. Any activity that gets children moving, exploring, playing outdoors — whether it’s structured or unstructured — is good for their wellbeing. This may include riding a bike to school or family bike rides to and around parks. At least initially, you will most likely need to get involved, especially with younger children.
- Get a pet that requires outside play or interaction. Around 80 per cent of Australian households own pets, with dogs and cats being the most common types, occurring in 53 per cent of households. Research, along with many people’s experiences, suggests that the very presence of a pet has a positive influence on children’s happiness and wellbeing. Pets can provide companionship, increase self-esteem and reduce stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression. Research has shown that over 70 per cent of children of all ages tend to talk to and confide in animals. Since research clearly identifies the lack of supportive social companionship networks as one of the leading causes of depression, stress and suppression of the immune system, it could be useful for you to consider animal companionships in this context as a suitable alternative. If an outdoors pet such as a dog can fit into your lifestyle and home, think about getting one. Perhaps, first, let your child play or walk a friend’s dog regularly. Be careful, though: buying a pet is a long-term investment. You will need to chat to your children about their responsibilities towards its care, including its daily exercise requirements.
- Regularly visit green spaces such as parks, botanical gardens, community gardens, farms and bushland reserves. Each week, if not more often, get the kids out to play, explore, throw or kick a ball, or have a barbecue or picnic or swim. Green natural spaces provide opportunities for restoring and improving physical, spiritual, emotional, cognitive and psychological wellbeing. Any kind of unorganised activity, such as walking to an interesting feature like a waterfall or creek, mountain-bike riding or swimming, will help a child to become active as well as interact with other kids and the local environment. For older kids requiring more stimulation, perhaps combine a visit with another activity — after a movie, perhaps, to burn off or stimulate energy. Or consider more organised activities such as adventure or outdoor recreation programs, mostly during school holidays, and farmstays, which involve interacting with animals.
- Become involved with local environmental projects such as bushcare or greening programs. Once a month, you could take your kids to where bushland or a creek is being regenerated. It can be satisfying being part of a habitat improvement project, to pull out some weeds and plant native shrubs and trees, and a great way to introduce younger kids to caring for the environment. I took my son to my local bush regeneration group when he was 10 and he enjoyed looking for lizards and insects in between pulling the odd weed. He attended for about a year and it helped develop his appreciation of the natural world. If you are involved in your local school, and the school principal has a positive attitude towards school-ground greening, then helping to establish more natural features such as vegetable gardens, rock amphitheatres and wildlife refuges and corridors can stimulate kids’ desire to spend more time outdoors while helping to create a more natural school environment. There are many benefits in doing this, from improving children’s mental focus and school performance to increasing their desire to explore and use their imagination in play, as well as developing a love of nature and the outdoors generally.
Sunny days ahead
The current generation of Australian children and teens are fortunate to live in relatively prosperous and safe environments and times. Yet the sedentary nature of their lifestyles is leading to the possibility they could have reduced lifespans compared to their parents due to the impacts of less exercise and outdoor activities. As parents, we need to find a way to overcome our children’s resistance to outdoor activities and inertia and create ways to help them discover the benefits. Getting them out into the great outdoors for a little bit each day will produce more balanced kids and more resilient, healthier future adults coping with increasingly challenging world.
Peter White’s book In the Presence of Nature: A Guide for Connecting and Healing in a Climate of Change is available at your local bookstore and online bookstores. W: natureconnect.com.au