When you think back to your own childhood, chances are some of your fondest memories are of outdoor places and activities. These memories might include climbing a tree, learning to turn cartwheels, playing tag with neighbourhood kids, having a picnic on the grass or visiting the beach. Children usually share the values of the important adults in their lives, so when we show an appreciation for the great outdoors, they follow our lead.
Unfortunately, this generation is spending more time indoors than any other in history and there have never been so many barriers to getting your child outdoors to play. Advances in technology and gadgets, more structured extra-curricular activities, increasing fear of stranger-danger, and worsening traffic concerns are all contributing. Sadly today, maximum security prisoners spend more time outside than the average Australian child.
However, our immediate world shapes the way children think, their attitudes and behaviours towards physical activity, the outdoors, relationships, adventure, risk, danger and challenge. As parents and educators, we have a significant role to play. It is us who will help them establish healthy habits and lasting positive attitudes.
The importance of outdoor play
The outdoors is the very best place for young children to practice and master emerging physical skills, such as running, leaping, and jumping. It is also the most appropriate area for the practice of ball-handling skills like throwing, catching, and striking, along with manipulative skills like pushing a swing, pulling a wagon, and lifting and carrying movable objects.
Additionally, it is in the outdoors that children are likely to burn the most calories, which helps prevent obesity, a heart disease risk factor that has doubled in the past decade. The outdoor environment is also important for children because the natural light stimulates the pineal gland, the part of the brain that regulates the "biological clock" vital to the immune system and makes us feel happier.
Outdoor play contributes to learning
The outdoors offer more than just physical benefits as cognitive and social/emotional development are impacted, too. Outside, children are more likely to invent games and as they do, they're able to express themselves and learn about the world in their own way. They feel safe and in control, which promotes autonomy, decision-making, and organisational skills. Inventing rules for games (as young children like to do) promotes an understanding of why rules are necessary.
Learning to appreciate the outdoors
Children learn much through their senses. Outside there are many different and wonderful things for them to see (animals, birds, and green leafy plants), to hear (the wind rustling through the leaves, a robin's song), to smell (fragrant flowers and the rain-soaked ground), to touch (a fuzzy caterpillar or the bark of a tree), and even to taste (newly fallen snow or a raindrop on the tongue). Children who spend a lot of time acquiring their experiences through television and computers are using only two senses (hearing and seeing), which can seriously affect their perceptual abilities.
Finally, what better place than the outdoors for children to be loud, messy and boisterous? Outside, they can run and jump and yell, and expend some of the energy that is usually inappropriate – and even annoying – indoors.