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Get Up, Get Out

The significance of the outdoor environment
By: Julie Mountain

Julie Mountain Qualified in landscape design, Julie has worked on outdoor learning and play projects for over 18 years, and has a passion for getting children and young people outdoors to experience nature, take risks, develop key competencies, embed learning and of course have fun.

Think back to your own childhood: what’s your clearest memory of playing as a child?  The chances are, your mind has transported you back to sunny days, fondly remembered friends and… playing outdoors?  Perhaps you recall grazed knees, leafy dens, lively cricket games and the sound of your own mother calling you home at suppertime.

Many parents recall a childhood that encompassed freedom to play outdoors, independently of adults, and tacit permission to ‘free range’ around the neighbourhood. Within a generation, this freedom to play and to roam has eroded to such an extent that the detrimental effects of a lack of outdoor play on our children has become a significant concern, not just for parents, but for health and education professionals alike.

Outdoors is special: it’s the place where children can move, leap, be loud, take risks, get dirty, connect with the natural world, test their own physical abilities, make mistakes, meet new people, cement friendships and feel independent and free.  This is just the start; outdoor play is vital for children of all ages:

• Children’s minds and bodies need to move in order to grow.  Physical activity strengthens children’s muscles, improves their core stability and develops gross and fine motor skills, enabling them to control their bodies.  Regular, active outdoor play helps maintain a healthy heart and weight as well as an alert, enquiring mind.

• Children are central to their community, yet their needs are often overlooked; author and childhood researcher Tim Gill suggests that children playing out on the streets is a sign of a healthy community, and that being outdoors is “a reliable way [for children] to appreciate the everyday rules and conventions of our communities”.  This in turn helps our children become responsible citizens.

• In urban areas, children may have few opportunities to experience the natural world; by allowing them to choose to stay indoors, we reduce this further.  Yet connecting with nature has been shown to have positive effects on children’s social and emotional wellbeing, on their physical health and it can stimulate their intellectual curiosity.  Noted author Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods) says, “Want your children to get into Harvard?  Send ‘em outdoors!”

So why on earth aren’t the streets and parks and playgrounds full of the sound of noisy, boisterous children?  Where are they all?

Books and magazines, homework and home ‘chores’ compete for children’s attention – just as they did in our own youth.  However, the 21st century also holds compelling new attractions for our children: TVs and DVDs in their bedrooms, iPods and iPads, smart phones, PlayStations, internet chat rooms, Facebook… Technological devices appeal to children’s innate instinct towards innovation and it can seem impossible to pull your children away from ‘the screen’.  

These are not the only barriers to playing out, however.  There is no question that the streets themselves have become more dangerous within a generation, although the risk of children being hurt through ‘stranger danger’, or even terrorism is still very small even in Pakistan.  Media coverage makes the risk appear far greater than it really is.  

However over the past 30 years, traffic on the streets has multiplied and safe places to play out on the streets have diminished.  Getting to the local park or waste ground has become more troublesome and whereas you were probably allowed to visit the park with friends, you may now feel that the streets are too dangerous to allow your own children and their friends to do the same.

For parents, these are difficult concepts to come to terms with; you of course want to feel you are doing all you can to protect your family from harm.  But by shielding our children from all risk, we actually magnify the risk: if your child has never crossed the road on their own, how will they learn how to do it safely?  If they’ve never been given the responsibility to go to the market to buy groceries for you, how will they develop the confidence to talk to adults, assess the quality of produce, and understand the value of money?  These are all essential skills for life, and they cannot be gathered through ‘a screen’.

The weather is a frequent excuse for staying indoors: “it’s too hot / wet / windy /cold / snowy”.  But as the saying goes, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”!  Children in Scandinavian countries play out all year round – and the health and educational benefits for these children are widely admired across other European countries.  Totally avoiding sunshine too is counterproductive; cases of rickets, a childhood disease we thought was all but eradicated in the West, are on the rise due to lack of Vitamin D – which the body generates from sunlight.  Sunlight raises serotonin levels and affects our moods, and many scientists now believe that it can even reduce the likelihood of diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

So it’s important to identify potential threats or barriers to getting children playing outdoors, and then put them into perspective.  Really, this means, “use common sense”.  As parents, we do this every day so it’s very familiar: here’s an example

• What is the risk, if my daughter plays outdoors?
 o It’s raining – she’ll get wet
• How likely is it that this risk will actually occur?
 o oVery likely!
• What would the consequences be?
 o She’ll be damp and maybe cold too.
• How could we work together to lessen the risk?
 o I’ll provide waterproofs and boots (if it’s a cold day), or an outfit it’s ok to get wet (if it’s a warm day).  I’ll also have a towel handy so she doesn’t drip on my floors!
• What would she miss out on, if I didn’t allow her to take this risk?
 o She won’t experience the joy of splashing in puddles, the sensation of rain on her face, the fun of building shelters under a bush or sploshing through mud.

So how can you get your children playing out?  Here are some ideas for luring your children away from the attractions of indoor play.

Next week:

• Check your children’s clothing – do they have clothes for different kinds of weather?  Do you?  Young children will love playing out in rain, snow or sunshine, if you show you are keen to be out there too.  If you’re often outdoors too – perhaps gardening, or reading a book in the shade, it sends your children the clear message that you value being outdoors and their play itself is valued.

• Collect old rugs, blankets and throws, add some pegs, string, rope and scissors and put the whole lot in an old basket – instant Den Building Kit.  Place it somewhere that your children can easily access (on a verandah perhaps) and encourage them to create in your own backyard or at the park.

• Talk to your children about what they like to do when they are outdoors – and what you used to do as a child.  Perhaps your children can’t find ‘the right kind of spaces’ to play around your home.  Explore the neighbourhood together – take photographs of spaces and places that could be ‘playable’ and make your own ‘map’ of local play spaces.  Go back to them later with friends to enjoy using them.

• Eat outdoors – either formally or picnic style.

• Take art materials and books out to the garden or park; keep some in a special bag or tub so that they are always ready to use.
    

Planning ahead:

• Talk to other parents or family members – could you take it in turns to take a ‘walking train’ of children to a nearby park or open space?  Once there, you won’t need to do much – children will find their own entertainment in most spaces.

• Create shady spaces that entice children to linger outdoors or in your backyard – plant trees and shrubs or install a parasol or sunshade; lay rugs and cushions on the ground.

• Could your street be occasionally temporarily closed to traffic?  In the UK, the movement to ‘reclaim’ the streets for people is gathering strength and many neighbourhoods regularly shut their street, allowing children to meet their friends, play cricket in the road, draw chalk pictures, relish the freedom of sudden space and generally socialise with one another.

• Provide a place for children to dig and to grow plants.  If you have no space in your own yard, could you ‘borrow’ a small piece of a neighbour’s plot?  Growing, cooking and eating food crops is rewarding and fun.

• If your children really can’t drag themselves away from their technology, how about exploring some of the ‘outdoor’ apps such as star maps, GPS trackers and Photosynth, which stitches images together to make panoramic photographs.
 

For more information regarding Julie Mountain's organization "Play Learning Life" please visit www.playlearninglife.org.uk or send in your enquiries at enquiries@playlearninglife.org.uk.