“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.” Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods”
Close your eyes and think back to a happy time in your childhood. What were you doing? Who were you with? For most of us, including myself, I think about all of the time I spent outdoors as a child. In the summer, my neighborhood friends and I would get up and spend the entire day outdoors. We played at the park, we played at the school playground, we searched creeks for roly-poly’s, and we rode our bikes all around our part of town (and yes, with no helmets ). Our play wasn’t organized by the adults and there were no boundaries to our creativity-okay, maybe a few boundaries like “don’t attach that rope to the highest tree limb and try to swing off of it.” We stayed outside until we were called in for dinner and then, if it was a great day, we would all meet again after dinner to play a game of “Kick the Can” before bedtime.
Now think about our children today. Do they have these same opportunities to have un-organized free play outdoors? Do they get to explore the natural world around them? I was pondering these questions as I was traveling in France and Italy last month. In Nice, we came across a playground that was full of children playing. There was not one more spot for a child on the climbing net. And in Levanto, Italy, every day after school the children of all ages would meet and play in the town center. Some were playing on the playground, some were organizing a soccer game, and some were riding their bikes. When was the last time you have seen this in America? The only time I can think of when I’ve seen that many children playing recently is indoors at the Cherry Creek Mall where children were climbing on the “Looney Tunes” characters. Yes, it’s good they are playing but it’s indoors and it’s "Looney Tunes" rather than nature. This can’t be good for our children.
But where did outdoor play go? Often the first thing to get the blame is children’s increased access to computer games, the internet and television. And yes, those probably have a lot to do with it. But what about our role as parents and teachers? In a study conducted in the late 1990’s, Rhonda Clements surveyed 830 mothers throughout the U.S. 85 percent of mothers cited television viewing and 81 percent cited computer play as among the reasons why their children played outdoors so infrequently. However, in the same survey, most of the mothers admitted that they themselves restricted their children’s outdoor play, and 82 percent cited safety concerns, including fear of crime, as reasons for doing so.
And as teachers it’s also important to recognize our role in preventing children’s access to outdoor time. In a recent study based on interviews with preschool teachers in Ohio, Participants noted physical and socio-emotional benefits of physical activity particular to preschoolers (e.g. gross motor skill development, self-confidence after mastery of new skills and improved mood, attention and napping after exercise) but also noted several barriers including their own personal attitudes (e.g. low self-efficacy) and preferences to avoid the outdoors (e.g. don’t like hot/cold weather, getting dirty, chaos of playground). Because individual teachers determine daily schedules and ultimately make the decision whether to take the children outdoors, they serve as gatekeepers to the playground.
And what are the benefits for our children if they play outdoors? Physically, outdoor play increases fitness levels and builds active, healthy bodies which helps combat the current rise in obesity among children. Spending time outside also raises levels of Vitamin D, helping protect children from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues.
Cognitively, exposure to natural settings may be widely effective in reducing ADHD symptoms. In addition, schools with environmental education programs score higher on standardized tests in math, reading, writing and listening.
And social-emotionally, studies have found that children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces. Play also protects children’s emotional development whereas loss of free time and a hurried lifestyle can contribute to anxiety and depression. And finally, the success of children's interactions is measured by the ability of children to develop and sustain friendships, to cooperate, to lead, and to follow. Unstructured active play with others, including with parents, siblings, and peers, is a major opportunity to cultivate social skills. All of this leads children to develop social and emotional capabilities such as empathy, flexibility, self-awareness, and self-regulation which continues into their adult life.
So it’s time. Time to start taking action by not letting another generation of children grow up without having an opportunity to play outdoors. Because if those of us who had the opportunity to spend the entire day outdoors have raised children who don’t have the same opportunity, what kind of children will our children raise?
*If you would like more information on the importance of outdoor play and/or creating a natural outdoor learning environment for children, the Environmental Rating Scales team at Clayton provides a training on this for child care programs. You can find the information on our Clayton website.