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.

3 ways nature in the city can do you good, even in self-isolation

Lucy Taylor, Author provided

Lucy Taylor, University of Melbourne; Dieter Hochuli, University of Sydney, and Erin Leckey, University of Colorado Boulder

Spending time at the beach or taking a walk in the park can help us recover from the mental and physical impacts of life’s stresses. But physical distancing measures to contain COVID-19 have included closing beaches, playgrounds and parks, adding to the challenges to our mental health. When we stay home to flatten the curve, how can we help ourselves by taking advantage of the benefits associated with nature?

Public playgrounds have been closed to encourage distancing and limit infection.
Peter Lead, Author provided

The evidence for nature supporting human well-being has grown in recent decades. We researched the links between nature and urban residents’ well-being and found there are benefits of nature that we can still enjoy now, even in lockdown.
Our findings point to some of the ways we can improve our well-being by engaging with everyday nature close to home.

Read more:
Biodiversity and our brains: how ecology and mental health go together in our cities

1. A room with a view

We reviewed the evidence, collected survey data on self-reported well-being and biodiversity indicators, and organised focus groups in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, and Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand, to better understand participants’ relationship with urban nature.

If you’re stuck at home, the good news is there is plenty of research that suggests a view through a window of vegetation or a body of water can provide a micro-break. A view of nature through a window has even aided hospital patients’ recovery from surgery. A short, 40-second glance at a green roof supports cognitive restoration better than a view of concrete.

Our research found urban residents had greater self-reported well-being when they had nature nearby or visible from their homes. Participants valued a view of vegetated areas – green space – and bodies of water – blue space. One participant said:

I could live in something that was pretty grim if it had a balcony that looked out [at nature].

Participants in our focus groups also highlighted the importance of seeing changes in the natural world, such as change in the weather or the seasons. Even if your view does not have a lot of vegetation or water, a view of the sky can allow engagement with nature’s dynamism.

A view out a window at nature’s dynamism can improve our well-being.
Lucy Taylor, Author provided

Read more:
Coronavirus: tiny moments of pleasure really can help us through this stressful time

2. Gardening – indoors and out

If you’re lucky enough to have a yard or balcony, now may be a good time to do some gardening. Gardening can offer benefits such as reductions in stress, anxiety and depression. As a physical activity, gardening can also improve physical fitness and support weight loss.

Gardens can also provide habitat for wildlife, potentially introducing you to new plants, pollinating insects and birds. Urban biodiversity benefits us too.

Our study found strong links between gardening and self-reported well-being. If you don’t have a yard, gardening on a balcony or tending to indoor plants also has benefits. One participant explained:

Having a small vegetable garden and flowers in pots makes me feel happy and content … It is wonderful to see things grow in the city.

Gardening in a yard, on a balcony, or even tending indoor plants does us good.
Peter Lead, Author provided

Read more:
Running out of things to do in isolation? Get back in the garden with these ideas from 4 experts

3. Green exercise

We know exercise is good for physical fitness and mental health. “Green exercise”, or exercise that takes place in and around nature, can improve your mood and self-esteem.

Our study found strong links between how often urban residents exercised and their self-reported well-being. One participant described how important green exercise is to them:

Being able to walk my dog down at the beach or go up into the hills is a great stress relief and keeps me fit and healthy and, best of all, it’s free.

Another participant described exercising in a public park:

I feel significantly calmer, [my] breathing rate goes down. I love the feel of that moist air going into my lungs from all the trees and I really do feel different.

To limit infection, residents of cities around the world are subject to a range of national and local constraints on when and how they leave the house to exercise. It is important to follow physical distancing guidelines, but it is also important to exercise rather than be both isolated and sedentary.

Read more:
Green for wellbeing – science tells us how to design urban spaces that heal us

Urban nature now and for the future

Nature can support our well-being now, when we all could use the help, but we need to protect it. Climate change talks have been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is clear climate change has not stalled, even taking into account the effect of lockdown on emissions.

There are lasting ways to reduce our emissions and create low-carbon and cooler cities. And the earlier we act, the better the outcomes will be.

If you have a yard, planting trees might be a good lockdown activity now and will ultimately benefit your future.

Read more:
Increasing tree cover may be like a ‘superfood’ for community mental health

Taking time to notice nature – via a glance outside, tending plants in pots or gardens, or via green exercise – will improve your well-being. Appreciating nature and having access to it has never been so important.The Conversation

Appreciating urban nature has never been more important.
Lucy Taylor, Author provided

Lucy Taylor, Assistant Researcher, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne; Dieter Hochuli, Professor, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney, and Erin Leckey, Research Scientist, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder

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