More than one in nine children in England have not set foot in a park, forest, beach or any other natural environment for at least 12 months, according to a two-year government-funded study. Another equally shocking report found that the average British child spent less time outdoors than adult prisoners: 74% of children spent less than an hour in the fresh air, almost a third of children play outdoors for 30 minutes or less a day and one child in five doesn’t play outside at all.
And yet children who regularly play outdoors have been shown to be happier, healthier, more confident and less anxious.
Andy Simpson, from The Wild Network, a movement to get more kids (and their parents!) outside and reconnecting with nature, says: “The tragic truth is that kids have lost touch with nature and the outdoors in just one generation.
“With many more parents becoming concerned about the dominance of screen time in their children’s lives, and growing scientific evidence that a decline in active time is bad news for the health and happiness of our children, we all need to become marketing directors for nature.”
Playing outside improves children’s health, happiness and self confidence
While obesity is the most visible symptom of lack of physical activity, studies from around the world show being active outdoors produces significant improvements in psychological and emotional wellbeing in children - even improving their learning and ability to concentrate. A study by the University of Essex found just five minutes “green exercise” can produce rapid improvements in mental wellbeing and self-esteem, with the greatest benefits experienced by the young.
Free and unstructured play in the outdoors boosts problem-solving skills, focus, determination and gross motor skills. Climbing a tree, for example, is about measuring risk, working out a strategy to get up into the branches, learning to trust and push your body - and the glee of succeeding. As child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron has noted: “The less children play outdoors, the less they learn to cope with the risks and challenges they will go on to face as adults… Nothing can replace what children gain from the freedom and independence of thought they have when trying new things out in the open. “
From a social viewpoint, playing outdoors improves children’s ability to play imaginatively and to cooperate and compromise with other kids. Emotional benefits include reduced aggression and increased happiness.
From a health perspective, outdoor play allows children’s bodies to produce vitamin D from its best natural source, the sunlight. Vitamin D enhances mood by helping to release serotonin in the brain. Children need healthy levels of serotonin for good mental health and development.
Being physically active outdoors also helps relieve stress by reducing levels of cortisol, a “stress hormone”, in the brain. On a daily basis children are exposed to stressful environments like busy streets, a barrage of screens and packed classrooms, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Playing outdoors, just being a kid unconfined by walls and worries, offers an antidote to this stress.
Regular exercise in the fresh air is also linked to better sleep patterns. When your children have fun letting off steam outdoors, they’re more ready to settle down for a good night’s sleep - waking refreshed and ready for a new day.
Being outdoors in nature gives your children a sense of wonder
“Nature deficit disorder” is a phrase coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. He argued that that the human cost of “alienation from nature” was measured in “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses”.
Being outdoors activates and feeds all your child’s senses, from the feel of warm earth to the smell of freshly mown grass. “As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow and this reduces the richness of human experience,” warned Louv.
Feeling connected with the natural world creates a unique sense of wonder for children that no other environment can provide. Seeing a newborn lamb up close, turning over stones to search for mini-beasts, finding and touching frog spawn, these are the stimulating moments nature can offer that will always beat a video game for life enhancement and long-lasting memories.
Just 21% of today’s kids regularly play outside, compared with 71% of their parents. That’s why it’s so important we help them build a treasure trove of fun-filled outdoor memories, just like we had.
If your suggestion of a family walk is met with groans, the National Trust has an inspirational “50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ activity list”.
So why don’t you...?
- Climb the highest hill near where you live, racing to see who can get to the top first - then roll down it.
- Make a daisy chain.
- Visit a farm. You don’t have to be living in the country to do this; city farms give ample opportunity for watching, feeding and petting animals.
- Go camping.
- Skim stones.
- Dam a stream.
- Go on a long bike ride.
- Play pooh sticks.
- Make a den.
- Catch a crab.
- Pick blackberries.
- Have a snail race.