Why the world needs kids to play outside and 9 ways to do it

“The wild calms the child.”

Unknown

I’m not sure who penned that line but it reminds me to throw on the jackets and get out no matter the weather. That and our new lockdown way of life , oh and the term Nature Deficit Disorder that’s currently concerning health experts.

These days, whether due to urban living, risk avoidance or a battle with devices, a childhood of unstructured outdoor play is becoming an endangered species. It is though, a popular topic of webinars and research studies, such is the problem.

It all plays right into my parent guilt. We live in inner Melbourne. We actually just moved closer into the city, with less outdoor space than before. (Walkability and access to parks is good though!)

For someone who grew up in the country with a love of gardens, this seems like an odd move. I grew up with space and outdoor play in abundance. It was straight on with the gumboots as soon as we got home and we’d be outside until dark, making up games, building forts, horse riding, collecting chook eggs or gardening with mum and dad. Access to playing freely in nature was easy..  

I do love a challenge and while we aim to give the kids as much unstructured play as possible, we’ve had to up our game with the travel limits of this pandemic. It’s certainly a little trickier in an urban environment, but it is possible if you’re looking for it.

With or without lockdowns, this challenge is real the world over and looks set to increase.

The United Nations predict 68% of humans to be living in urban areas by 2050.

This statistic is alarming but it’s a good deal worse if you live in Australia – we are one of the most urbanised nations – at 90% according to the ABS. We have our work cut out for us. (That said, our urban living is often with more space than other urbanised nations)

Image montage by the Urban Sparrow of my two a few years ago.

The benefits of children playing outside and connecting with nature are huge in terms of general health, and are certainly not a new thing. Research shows links to healthy development such as resilience, confidence, gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination, creativity, problem solving, intellectual development and overall wellbeing.  This article expands on this brilliantly – Harvard Medical School – 6 Reasons Kids Need to Play Outside

Many parents are all too aware of the struggle against the screens but it goes beyond this crucial healthy alternative to digital activities – the future of our planet depends on our younger generation caring about the environment.

Image credit: The Urban Sparrow

“We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it”

George Eliot.

The problem, and solution, is right there in 19th century literature, thanks George Eliot.

More recently researchers from The University of Colorado found that ‘regardless of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, early childhood experiences in nature significantly influence the development of lifelong environmental attitudes and values (Chawla, 199819992006a2006bWells, 2000).’

Their review of existing studies found ‘that American children are spending less and less time in the natural world” (Hofferth & Curtin, 2006Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001).’

‘As a result, many educators, environmentalists, scholars, and parents are becoming increasingly concerned about whether today’s “de-natured” children will want to protect and care for the natural environment. (EcoAmerica, 2006Louv, 2007Pyle, 2002White, 2004)’

Research published in Frontiers in Psychology in Feb 2020 states:

‘ A disconnection to nature, termed ‘nature deficit disorder’, may contribute to the destruction of the planet, as the lack of a bond with the natural world is unlikely to result in desire to protect it.’

This study by Dr Laura Berrera-Hernández and her team at the Sonora Institute of Technology (ITSON), has shown for the first time that connectedness to nature makes children happier due to their tendency to perform sustainable and pro-ecological behaviors.

Image credit – The Urban Sparrow

Studies are also showing that a connection with nature in childhood is linked to better mental health as adults,[1] (Barcelon study May 2019).

It seems one of the best things we can do as parents, educators, governments is let the children play, and therefore connect and care for nature and their future selves.

The mental health toll of the COVID pandemic has seen getting out in nature as almost a survival need with the need for greenery and growing food reach new heights of popularity.

According to The New York Times ‘it took a pandemic and stay-at-home orders for that desire to spend more time outdoors to feel like a necessity. Experts hope that desire for nature will remain once people physically return to their busy schedules.’

“Ironically, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, as tragic as it is, has dramatically increased public awareness of the deep human need for nature connection, and is adding a greater sense of urgency to the movement to connect children, families and communities to nature.

Richard Louv, the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, told the New York Times 
Image credit – The Urban Sparrow

With or without lockdown, urban or regional, here’s some ideas to get the kids out and about. 

9 ideas to connect kids to nature

1. SCAVENGER HUNT

This can keep kids entertained for ages and completely capture their imagination:

  • Find a hat for a frog
  • A wand for a fairy
  • 3 different coloured flowers
  • Find the most interesting leaf
Image of a Scavenger Hunt document

FREE PRINTABLE SCAVENGER HUNT

Take this with you to the backyard or park. Should keep the kids engaged for a good while.

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2. MAKE A HOUSE OF STICKS

Seek out a park or bush area where the kids can have the space and time to make a tent or cubby out of sticks and bark and leaves.

3. CLIMB A TREE

Go searching for the best trees to climb and don’t go home until you’ve tried to climb at least 3!

Image credit – The Urban Sparrow

4. PLANT SEEDS

Seeds are all around us – chia seeds, sunflower seeds or a packet of seed. Or soak a dried pea overnight and then watch it sprout.

 5. TREASURE HUNT

Plant clues to draw the kids outside, with a surprise at the end.

  • Find the next clue under a large green leaf 
  • Find the next clue at the bottom of the tree with the smoothest bark
  • Find the next clue where the pink flowers bloom
Image credit – The Urban Sparrow

6. ART

Find 5 things on the ground at a park and make a picture with them

7. PICK AND PRESS FLOWERS

If you don’t have a flower press, just use heavy books. Then look up what you picked and find out it’s botanical name and what country it is native to.

8. BUSH WALK

Find the most natural setting in your postcode to get out walking in.

9. CAMP IN THE BACKYARD

Tell stories with the stars, go on a head torch walk.

I’m sure you can think of one more to make it 10!

This article was a collaboration with The Urban Sparrow. All images in this post are taken by the incredibly talented photographer behind The Urban Sparrow, Rebecca Rowlands. Bec has a beautiful way with kids and families. What she captures with that camera are treasures to behold.

Extra reading

[1] Science Daily – Contact with nature during childhood could lead to better mental health in adulthood

Science Direct – The importance of outdoor play for young children’s healthy development

Harvard Medical School – 6 Reasons Kids Need to Play Outside

Child Mind Institute – Why Kids Need To Spend Time in Nature

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