The Importance of Outdoor Play
Hi, welcome to the Let’s Go Outside, Let’s Talk Series. I’m Marghanita Hughes, I’m a children’s author an illustrator and impassion about getting children outdoors.
Today sadly, children are spending less time outdoors than ever before. The Let’s Talk Series is going to ask the question, why are children spending less time outdoors and how can we as parents, individuals, teachers and organisations help get them back outdoors and connecting with nature.
Today I’m talking with Kristina Towill, she’s going to share some of her views about why children are spending less time outside.
Thank you Kristina for joining us today, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well as you know Marghanita, I’m a mother, I have two beautiful little girls, four and six years old, and I am also a psychologist in our community.
I have a practice which is both general psychology and more specific referrals pertaining to individual and couple counselling.
So why are children spending less time outdoors?
I think there’s numerous factors, some have to do with the changes in our sort of socio-cultural structure and some really pertain directly to influences from the media.
To speak to the former issue, there are significant changes in the way that families are structured today, we have more dual income families, less time if you will to be with our children out of doors, to play in an unstructured and free way, and I think that that’s a challenge that many, many families are facing in this modern time.
We also have a related point, a very hurried lifestyle, and some of that it definitely is influenced by the perception that parents have, perhaps fed by the media, that they need to have their children in multiple and varied activities, often times achievement-oriented, whether they be sports, early academic programs, to provide their child with the best start, and this is very much supported by the media, if you pick up a magazine, turn on the TV, even speaking to fellow parents in a neighbourhood or community, there’s definitely more pressure on parents now to provide their children with these sort of excelling if you will, early excelling programs, and sadly that way of thinking and providing children with those highly structured, in some way quite pressured experiences early on, is really not supported by psychological research, as being necessarily good for children or optimal for their development.
So can you tell us a little bit by the research then?
Well as a psychologist and a mother, there are probably two experiences for children that are really foundational and we believe critical for their healthy development.
The first would obviously be attachment, a bonding to caregivers, a love and a sense of security and safety with those caregivers and we know that that is critical to children’s physical development and also to their cognitive, social and emotional development.
The second major factor for children that is so important to their development is play. Play is the work of children, and there is ample research that comes out of neuropsychology that play is actually critical to children’s brain development, and ideally play in an unstructured or what we would consider to be free format, is most important for that brain development.
When we look at studies on the way that children’s brains develop, and the kind of critical skills that we want them to acquire, we often speak as psychologists about executive functions.
So executive functions are really what separate us as a species from other higher primates, apes and chimpanzees and so forth, and those would be cognitive skills including problem-solving, critical thinking, reasoning, sequencing, organizing, conflict resolution, and these are skills and competencies that are actually, and this is very well supported in the literature, best developed in an out of doors, free, unstructured play environment.
When children are, when they’re playing in a way that is not parent or adult directed, but is self directed, they are more likely to use those executive functions.
It could be as simple as them deciding what they want to play, and then deciding how they want to incorporate their peers, the direction the play might take, as they build their creativity and imagination, and so play is truly from a cognitive development standpoint, critical to children’s brain development. There’s a lot of pressure in this day and age for parents to expose their children to sort of media promoted products, Baby Einstein comes to mind.
Sadly there is not a single study that would support the benefit of a program like that for children, over exposure to the outdoor environment.
I often talk with parents in our community, that you would be far better to take your toddler and plunk them in the backyard on a blanket and allow them to be exposed to the out of doors to be curious about a butterfly flying by, the colours, the sounds, than the stimulus just from the natural environment then putting them in front of one of those type of videos, so that would just be an example.
So we know that for children, their cognitive development is predicated on free play and that their brains are better stimulated and in fact develop in a more critical way as a result of exposure to the outdoor environment. We also know that there are very important social and emotional benefits for children to being out of doors.
Children when they are out of doors and playing with peers, incorporating peers into their free imaginative play are using really critical social skills and competencies that we want to see children develop as they grow older, and that is something that again is not developed in as strong way when they have more adult directed indoor structured play.
From the standpoint of their emotional development, there is a lot of research that our children sadly are more stressed than they’ve ever been, and we think this is a product of various factors, one being the fact that they are not having the time to, a lot of parents will talk to it as downtime, to just engage in their environment in a very natural and an instinctive way.
Another factor that is compromising our youth’s mental health currently is the achievement oriented society that we live in, where there is more emphasis put, even at a very tender age, three and four, to phonetics for example, than there is two children’s just emotional well-being, their creativity, being able to explore their backyard, and so all of these things are, oh, we have a friend, all of these things are straining and stressing our children, and we certainly know from developmental psychology that we do have higher rates in our youth and in our children of mental health issues like depression and anxiety than ever before.
They’re really at a historical high, so that that concerns me greatly as a parent and also as a psychologist.
We also know and it’s, I don’t think you need to be in my profession to know this, children are happy when they’re out of doors.
They’re happy, there is a very natural connection that children have when it is left unfettered, children have a natural connection to the environment, they have a natural curiosity about their environment around them, they have a fearlessness about animals, insects and all of the myriad of creatures to explore, and so that’s something again that children are having less time to do.
Most studies would cite that most children today have less than 10% of their daily time engaged in free unstructured play, that is truly child centred and child directed.