Kids told to play in Nature’s playground

Getting back to nature.
Getting back to nature. 

Curtin University research claims that in just one generation, outdoor play has decreased from 73% to just 13% of total play time.

Instead, the vast majority of children today indulge in more than the recommended two hours of screen use by watching TV/DVDs, playing electronic games and using computers.

The Western Australian State Government has decided to tackle this trend by developing a new program called Nature Play. The program hopes to entice kids back outside with their ultimate outdoors list – “15 things to do before you’re 12”.

Research suggests that contact with nature increases physical and social development in children, which is great news for growing childhood obesity figures.

In contrast, spending too much time cooped up indoors playing electronic games, watching TV or using the computer is disadvantageous to many aspects of the child’s wellbeing according to the study Electronic Overload: The Impact of Excessive Screen Use on Child and Adolescent Health and Wellbeing published by the University of Western Australia.

The WA government’s Nature Play program is aimed at such children who rely on technology for entertainment and are handing out “passports” to school kids with “mission pages” encouraging them to embark on adventures enjoyed by kids a generation ago like:

•    Build a sandcastle
•    Climb a tree
•    Play in the rain
•    Plant something and watch it grow
•    Learn to swim

By re-introducing these nature-friendly activities, Nature Play WA is encouraging children to learn to appreciate nature and respect the environment. Griffin Longley, CEO of Nature Play WA told WA Today that primary school kids in Australia spend “less than two hours outside, that includes weekends and school holidays”. While some activities in the “passport” like “build a cubby” may require organization and planning, others like “catch a tadpole” while “playing in a creek” are aimed at ensuring some unstructured play is also achieved – another mission of the Nature Play WA program.

Unstructured play is an important part of childhood according to Dr Bronwyn Harman from Perth’s Edith Cowan University. She told the West Australian that unstructured play boosts “children’s cognitive, emotional and social development” while helping them learn about sharing and decision making.

Such activities also encourage children to develop better physical and motor skills while fuelling their imagination and providing an outlet for stress, according to a Planet Ark study conducted in March 2011.

Maggie Dent, a parenting expert and commentator agrees that built up stress, especially for “boys or very strong charactered children with lots of energy” interferes with their learning and playing ability.

"Nature has a way of calming them and soothing them ... so they get along better, think better, learn better, question better [because] they're interacting with a world that is full of fascinating things," she told WA Today.

In fact, Richard Louv, an American journalist was so concerned about the lack of emotional attachment kids have with nature these days, he developed a movement called Children & Nature Network to address what he calls the “nature deficit disorder”.

In a world full of climate change talk and environmental concerns, it is essential that kids of today are empowered with the knowledge and understanding required to tackle these issues tomorrow. In a Guardian (UK) article, Louv argues that instead of ensuring that kids develop an interest in connecting with and preserving nature, a sense of “ecophobia” or “scenarios of fear and disaster” in terms of the environment is being instilled in kids.

Scenarios of fear and disaster of another kind – child abuse and abduction also rules in the minds of parents today. In a world where parental fear seems to be embedded in just about every activity a child participates in, Nature Play WA’s activities like “camp out under the stars (even in your own backyard)” may actually help ‘unwrap’ kids from the ‘cotton wool cocoons’ parents of this generations have made them. By letting kids experience a whole night by themselves, albeit in their own backyard, both parents and kids develop confidence and learn to take risks.

This is a thought echoed by Associate Professor Alan Ralph of the Positive Parenting Program (Triple P) recently in the podcast Cotton Wool Kids.  He explained that there is no reason for parents to perform a complete about turn in terms of allowing children to experience real life activities. Instead, he said that, "the trick is to allow risk where the consequences of something bad happening are limited - and it’s not going to be catastrophic, because we learn a lot from our mistakes.” For example, he says that parents can accompany their child on the train to school but get off a stop earlier and let them complete the journey to school by themselves, ringing them to ensure they reached their destination safely.

Such an approach to parenting that allows kids to take more risks, called free range parenting is being publicized around the world by people like Lenore Skenazy – an American mother who let her 9 year old son ride the subway alone and wrote about his adventures in the New York Sun only to be dubbed “America’s Worst Mom”. She started her blog Free Range Kids to defend her actions and encourage parents to develop a “commonsense approach to parenting in these overprotective times”.  On her blog, she explains that she believes in safety but not a “security detail” every time they leave the house.

Longley acknowledges that parents of this generation are “marinated in fear” and that they believe “terrible harm” is going to eventuate if they let their kids go outside.  It is with this thought in mind that he says that technology cannot be completely eliminated and initiatives to get kids outside can incorporate the two –like the GPS treasure hunt which is a game that involves using a mobile phone or GPS to find items hidden by other players in their neighbourhood. In this way technology and nature can go hand in hand.