Muddy knees and climbing trees: how a summer playing outdoors can help children recharge


Avril Rowley, Liverpool John Moores University

Most adults will remember spending much of their childhood playing outdoors without much parental supervision. But fears for children’s safety plus the demands of modern life mean many parents don’t allow their children the same freedoms.

We live in an age where people have distanced themselves from nature in favour of a world full of technology and indoor pursuits. Natural England confirms that only one in nine children have access to natural environments throughout their early lives. And a poll from 2016 found 75% of children in the UK spend less leisure time outdoors than prison inmates.

Research has found this alienation from nature makes children less resilient and less able to cope with the increasing anxieties they have about growing up in the modern world.

And Public Health England has shown that the communities hardest hit are low income and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME). Children in these often inner city communities are six times more likely to have no previous experience of activity in outdoor spaces.

The great outdoors

It has long been recognised that humans are drawn to all things alive and natural. And for children, getting outdoors helps to aid their exploration of the world. It’s how they learn best – through an environment made up of “loose parts”, which allows for creativity and problem solving. They use their ingenuity to make up games, construct new imaginary worlds and develop their own solutions to problems.

Man and son walking through woodland.
There’s so much to learn from the great outdoors.
Pexels/yogendra singh

Early advocates of outdoor playall recognised the many positives it can bring. But more recently, outdoor play has been linked to extended focus on tasks and the ability for children to be self-directed in their approach to learning.

This is especially significant for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as time outdoors can increase concentration and lower hyperactive symptoms.

Health benefits

For all children, spending time outdoors increases exposure to light. This is important because it stimulates the pineal gland, which helps to regulate hormones and is vital to remain healthy.

More exposure to sunlight also increases synchronicity to the natural – or circadian – rhythms of the day. This means that as it gets later in the day, children’s brains start to release the hormone melatonin which encourages drowsiness in preparation for sleep.

On top of this, exposure to sunlight builds vitamin D in the body – an important vitamin for maintaining strong bones and preventing chronic diseases.

Active play also allows for more physical and strenuous activities and increases aerobic exercise, so children burn more calories – helping to prevent obesity and strengthen bones and muscles.

Respect for the environment

Children who spend more time in nature also express more appreciation for conservation of the environment and more interest in how important animals are for our survival.

Evidence shows that time spent outdoors as a child is positively linked with higher environmental literacy and a healthy respect for the world that lasts into adulthood.

Family splashing in water by the seaside.
Get outdoors this summer.

Playing outdoors also exposes children to opportunities to extend themselves and push the boundaries of their capabilities. In Norway, for example, from the age of three, children are taught to climb trees, make dens, build fires and use knives when they attend kindergarten“.

This exposure to risk in a controlled environment increases children’s sense of exhilaration, which enables them to gain confidence and push themselves onto more challenging activities.

Get your kids outdoors

The summer holidays are the perfect opportunity to get outdoors with your children. Don’t underestimate the positive effects of something as simple as a family walk in the park, beach or woodland. Let them jump in puddles and streams, climb trees and gather objects from the wild.

You can also organise games for when you’re out and about. The Matchbox Challenge, for example, is a great game for outdoors. Give each child a matchbox and a time limit to find as many natural objects they can and put them in the matchbox. At the end of the time limit allow them to devise a points system for the different types of objects they found. Add up the points and see who has won.

Another one to try is journey stick, which allows children to create a memento of a walk and the things found. Finding a large stick is the first part of the challenge. Then as your child finds a new item, tie or tape it to the stick. Once at home, your child can retell their journey with the reminders on their journey stick.

There’s also hug a tree – in pairs children take it in turns to be blindfolded while a parent or sibling takes them to a tree. They use their senses to “get to know” the tree. Their guide returns them to the original spot and they must guess which tree they hugged.

These are just some suggestions, but above all else, allow your children to explore the environment, get dirty and take risks this summer – they’ll thank you for it in the long run.The Conversation

Avril Rowley, Senior Lecturer in Primary Education, Liverpool John Moores University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Why we’re working to put Africa’s jellyfish on the map

New Chrysaora from the coast of South Africa.
Peter Southwood

Verena Ras, University of the Western Cape

Jellyfish can be found in almost every ocean in the world. These beautiful, graceful creatures are a sight to behold; their swift, pulsating motions gently propel them through the water. But the scene can quickly turn ominous as the animal transforms into a ferocious, formidable predator.

These creatures have no special organs for respiration or excretion. They have no head, no brain, no skeleton and no true circulatory system. This allows them to be highly adaptable and to survive in even the harshest conditions.

Most species typically have a multi-phase life cycle. Many jellyfish can exist as polyps on the sea floor, able to create identical clones of themselves. When conditions are just right, polyps are able to release numerous juvenile jellies into the water. Many polyps may even lie dormant when conditions are not favourable, emerging again when they improve. The free-swimming adult jellyfish often eat a variety of marine species from tiny shrimp to small pelagic fish. Many even eat other jellies. The adult jelly can also shrink when food is not available to conserve energy and resources, growing back to its normal size when food becomes available again. This unique life history gives them many advantages over other species.

Jellyfish are also well known for forming large swarms known as “blooms” – which can have far reaching negative effects. Jellyfish blooms have clogged the cooling intakes of power plants, resulting in total shutdowns; they can destroy fishing nets and spoil catches. Many species also deliver a painful sting that many beach-goers may know well.

But despite some of these negative impacts, jellyfish are incredibly useful. They are indicators of oceanic circulation patterns, play a rather large role in the mixing of oceanic nutrients and also help control pelagic fish populations (those that inhabit the water column, not near the bottom or the shore). It was recently discovered that jellyfish even provide microhabitats where other marine species may live and survive.

Jellyfish have also recently become the focus of a number of biotechnology and pharmaceutical studies as they appear to possess many properties that may be useful in a variety of applications, from household cleaning products to fertilisers. Other species are now commercially farmed for human consumption, with large fisheries already established in countries like India and China. Jellyfish are being turned into products like dehydrated chips, protein shakes and other food stuffs.

However, with few dedicated research efforts, jellyfish remain unexplored in many oceans and it is likely that many species have gone unrecorded or unnoticed. Some scientists even suggest that their numbers may be declining in some parts of the world. Global longterm data simply doesn’t exist for jellyfish, so scientists struggle to predict, track and mitigate their potential effects – good and bad.

But collecting the necessary data requires significant resources, manpower and expertise. That’s where a South African-led team of researchers based at the University of the Western Cape’s Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology comes in. Using samples collected by a global research vessel, we’ve been able to begin to establish a baseline of data for African jellyfish species. This, we hope, will allow us to establish more thorough trends across oceans, uncover new species (we’ve already identified one) and better understand the links between different species.

Examining the specimens

In 2016, we approached the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s EAF-NANSEN Programme to see whether jellyfish samples could be collected by its Dr Fridtjof Nansen research vessel. EAF-NANSEN agreed, and started collecting samples in waters across the African continent.

The first specimens arrived at UWC late in 2017 and we got to work. Jellyfish have few identifying features and a highly variable body type. So figuring out which species we had in the lab was no easy task. The team typically measures anywhere from 35 to 70 morphological features for any given species, which are then analysed statistically for patterns. DNA is also extracted from various individuals and populations to help identify species and to establish patterns of gene flow across populations.

So, what have we learned? First, it became clear early on that the African coastline encompasses a larger variety of species than previously thought. Our group has already found a new compass jelly off the southern coast of South Africa, along with a new species of rhizostome jellyfish that appears to be completely endemic to South Africa through some of our previous research.

University of the Western Cape masters student Roxy Zunckel swims with the jellyfish Rhizostoma luteum.

Second, the team has begun to identify a number of other African morphotypes that appear to be distinct from their global counterparts. The species found here appear to show high levels of endemism, meaning they are changing in their physical appearance and even their DNA to adapt to our waters.

The work is continuing and we have already received three years’ worth of specimens and associated data which we hope to analyse alongside other African jelly experts.

Future plans

The aim of this work is to build up and establish high quality resources for African jellyfish species that may be used to contribute to global studies and reviews. Eventually, we hope to establish population patterns across the east and west African coastlines; at the moment these data simply don’t exist. This will require a coordinated global effort, but as we’ve shown through our collaboration with the NANSEN programme, this is possible and it’s yielding great results.The Conversation

Verena Ras, PhD candidate, University of the Western Cape

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.