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Kids might prefer their screens but time outdoors is important for healthy, happy mini-humans. Here’s why playing outdoors is good for kids.
As parents, we all know playing outside is an important experience for our children. But did you know one expert recommends three hours of outdoor play each day? It sounds like a lot, especially in our technology-obsessed society where we seem to be increasing time indoors but the merits of action in the outdoor environment keep stacking up. Here’s why playing outdoors is good for kids.
Keeping kids fit and healthy can be a challenge. These days our lives are increasingly sedentary and we’re so time-poor that finding spare minutes to go for a walk or kick a soccer ball around can be a challenge. But playing outside is crucial to children’s good health and offers endless benefits.
Firstly, we all require a bit of daily sun exposure to boost vitamin D levels and to improve our mood and immune systems (just remember to be sun safe while you’re out there!). Research suggests regular outdoor play and physical activity is important for children’s physical development and lowers the risk of kids developing short-sightedness and muscular problems. Physical activity can also help children sleep better and is intrinsic to their overall good health.
Just being out in open space and engaging in free play is good for our kids. It removes restrictions, allowing them to be louder, freer and more energetic. In outdoor spaces, kids can engage in skills like kicking, throwing, jumping, running, hopping and dancing – activities that may not be practical inside the house.
By children playing and using their bodies in this way, they’re boosting their gross motor skills and building muscle. They’re also working on important functions like flexibility, endurance and good posture.
Grab some bouncy balls (they can create their own) and some chalk for a hard and fast handball session. Get young children moving with an obstacle course with step-a-trails and bean bags. Or simply get them throwing and chasing planes. They can make paper planes from simple construction paper or with a cool kit.
The positive physiological benefits of playing outdoors are clear. What’s more of a surprise is the way this can impact on mental health and brain development in our children. Kids who spend frequent time out in the outdoor environment have less stress and mental fatigue and an increased ability to focus, as well as deeper levels of curiosity, which leads to better academic results.
Active kids are also happy kids, with less recorded cases of depression and anxiety. According to the biophilia hypothesis, humans are instinctively drawn to nature and our connection to it brings us happiness.
For young kids, a sandbox and a bucket of tools can deliver hours of fun – just like it did when you were a preschooler. With some simple sidewalk chalk, playing games like hopscotch is a lock. And don’t forget the classics: hide and seek, tag and musical chairs (wireless and Bluetooth speakers are perfect for this one) or just a simple nature walk.
Playing outdoors allows children to have hands-on experiences, rather than passively watching television or playing on a tablet when spending extended time indoors. Being outside can lead to adventures, which is not only fun but encourages independence and confidence.
This is the core philosophy behind the Candlebark School, established by author John Marsden in 2006. The school is based in the foothills of the Macedon ranges, on grounds spanning 445 hectares. Students are encouraged to go hiking and exploring and frequent unstructured outdoor free play is a key part of the curriculum.
One of the big benefits of outdoor activities is that the setting lends itself to group play, like playing tag or throwing paper planes to one another, and through these activities kids are learning to share and cooperate.
According to a Harvard Medical School blog, playing outdoors helps kids learn how to play fair. Subconsciously, they’re picking up capabilities to work well with others, lead a team and solve problems.
Running and jumping is great but there’s no harm in enjoying quieter pursuits in the afternoon breeze, too. Set up the colouring pencils, crayons and butcher’s paper on a garden table and encourage kids to take part in an outdoor drawing session. Take a puzzle outside for them to do on the back patio. With some string they can play cat’s cradle sitting on the grass.
Playing outdoors can also be great for parents because it’s low-cost and easy — get them outdoors with you for household tasks like gardening, hanging clothes on the line, sweeping or feeding pets.
Playing outside lets children take risks and experiment. While parents naturally want to keep kids safe, allowing them to engage in “risky”, free play activities such as climbing trees, balancing on walls and dangling on outdoor play equipment helps them build confidence and resilience, as well as physical abilities and fitness.
Even if they fail, there are valuable lessons to be had. Unstructured outdoor play, without parents leading the way, promotes independence, creativity and problem-solving skills. When things go awry, kids learn to be resilient and self-regulating.
The future of our planet depends on our children. This has never been more clear than it is now. Spending time outdoors with little ones gives them an appreciation for, and understanding of, nature and the outdoor environment. Walking in the park or bush, spotting animals and plants, playing and exploring, all help establish a connection between children and the great outdoors.
Try going one step further to give your kids the chance to become responsible little people. Give them a plant to nurture, or an outdoor tidying task to complete. Get them engaged in the local landscape and watch as the positive outcomes stack up.