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For many of us, a large part of childhood was spent outdoors, climbing trees, beachcombing, catching tadpoles, making mud pies and exploring caves. Physically, this also meant rock-hopping, scrambling up and down hills, riding bikes, running, swimming and climbing.
Nature was compelling and so rich in possibilities that these activities rarely felt like exercise – they were simply fun.
Sadly, this kind of unstructured outdoor play no longer features so prominently in the lives of children. Today’s kids spend less time playing outside than their parents did at the same age – a trend attributed to a more protective style of parenting and the lure of electronic devices, among other factors.
A recent study by the University of Sydney found that children on average spend 1.9 hours per day watching TV or playing the computer, while clocking only 36 minutes of daily physical activity.
The result of this largely sedentary, indoor lifestyle was described by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods as ‘nature-deficit disorder’. Though not an official medical diagnosis, the term refers to the range of health problems that can occur when children – and adults – become alienated from nature. These include a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, depression and obesity.
“As we are all biological beings, we have a connection with the outdoor environment,” says Sarah Blackwell, founder and director of Forest Schools, a UK outdoor education initiative. “When children, as well as adults, cannot access this and be stimulated in it, there are increased diagnoses of stress and depression.”
The University of Sydney study found that children as young as six are risking heart problems later in life as a result of too much downtime indoors with electronic devices, with narrowing of blood vessels behind their eyes an early warning sign of heart disease and high blood pressure. Several other studies worldwide have also found this can lead to myopia in children.
Body, mind, spirit
On the flip side, studies have shown that people who spend time enjoying the great outdoors reap enormous benefits in terms of their physical and mental health. We all respond well to spending time in a natural environment, whether we’re suffering from nature-deficit disorder or not. Aside from the obvious positive effects of breathing fresh air and being physically active, there are benefits for the immune system and physical abilities such as balance and agility being enhanced through activities such as walking on uneven ground.
Simply looking at natural surroundings has been shown to lower blood pressure and ease muscle tension, while also heightening our sensory skills. We spend a lot of time with technology that only engages some of the senses. For example, TV only stimulates sight and hearing. When we are in nature, all our senses are engaged and we truly come to life.
Children with attention deficit disorders have also been proven to mentally benefit from outdoors time, with a recent study by Dr David Katz showing a 33 per cent reduction in medication for ADHD in children who were exercising outdoors.
Interacting with natural environments has also been found to nurture mental health by increasing our capacity to deal with stress, lifting mood and improving self-esteem. For these reasons horticulture therapy programs are increasingly being introduced into aged care homes, psychiatric hospitals and prisons.
Adult-organised sports and outdoor activities for kids are beneficial, but free play is of particular importance for brain development, imagination, dexterity and emotional and physical strength.
Nature in schools
With children spending less time outdoors at home, green spaces in schools can play an important role in our children’s development and health. Playing and learning in extensive gardens or bushland benefits students in all the ways outlined above, but also by nourishing creativity. Nature has endless possibilities and
when children have access to trees, rocks, bushes and fallen logs their imaginations also have no bounds.
Schools that run outdoor education programmes report a range of improvements in their students’ performance and wellbeing, including higher self-esteem and better concentration and communication skills, as a result of weaving positive natural experiences into their education.
Outside in the city
Living in urban environments that lack accessible green spaces is one of the biggest factors that disconnect our modern society from nature.
Approximately 90 per cent of Australians live in cities or towns so it is heartening that many of our urban designers are increasingly switching to ‘green’ designs. Hopefully Australian cities will see a vast increase in bike paths, wildlife corridors and parklands in the coming years.
Try some of these oh-so-simple and fun ideas for getting outdoors:
• Create a garden haven Planting a garden that will attract birds and insects is also a great way to engage children.
• Ditch the gym Go jogging, walking or swimming at the beach, in nearby parks or nature reserves.
• Pack a picnic Head to a local park and take a frisbee or cricket bat with you.
• Go exploring Even big cities have secret wild places and gardens.
• Take a day trip Most urban centres have beautiful natural areas close by.
• Pack up the tent and go camping Australia’s national parks abound with camping sites that have great facilities.
• Get a pet Becoming a pet-owner is guaranteed to get you outdoors often.
• Cook outdoors Firing up the barbecue will encourage your kids outdoors for a meal and playtime.