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A plea to allow children more outdoor play

 “Whatever landscape a child is exposed to…that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see the world” Wallace Stegner

As parents and educators, this quote encourages us to think deeply about how we can influence the opportunities we put in place for our children. Children’s lives are so different now than they were just a few decades ago. They have fewer opportunities for outdoor free play, their physical boundaries have shrunk significantly and they experience less autonomy than ever before. A Planet Ark study in 2011 showed that 1 in 10 children today play outside once per week or less. Their time has become structured and watched over by adults. Technology dictates their lives and they are losing their understanding that nature and opportunity exists in their own backyards and neighbourhoods.

A lot has happened to get us to this point. The growth of urbanisation, both parents working, an increase in screen time, children’s busy schedules, parents’ fears for children’s safety. Many children no longer have access to outdoor spaces to play and explore. The school and community playground is often a prescribed piece of play equipment that leaves no room for children’s imagination or creativity. Spaces that could be fun to explore are deemed ‘out of bounds’ or too dangerous, and play is heavily restricted out of a fear of litigation or loss of reputation.

What then is the gauze through which our children will see the world?

How will our children learn about the world if they aren’t exposed to it or experience it?

What is the impact this will have on their development and growth into adulthood?

Some of the impacts of this cocooned lifestyle is that our children are growing up to be physically deficient, anxious and depressed, unable to regulate their emotions, to socialise or self-direct tasks and importantly, unable to recognise good risks from bad.

Many families and educational settings are working hard to correct this and to create opportunities for children to engage in open-ended, diverse and meaningful experiences and to create time and space for children to have some control of their decisions and actions. Many sites have created beautiful outdoor learning environments that encourage tree climbing, use of real tools, playing with sticks, playing with mud, getting dirty, cooking and learning with fire, going barefoot, being outdoors in all weather, exploring wild natural areas, and the myriad of opportunities provided from an outdoor space that has been created to mimic nature.

A recent exploration conducted by Nature Play SA looked at 12 sites around South Australia that made outdoor learning a feature of their programs*. The cross-sector study involved kindergartens, childcare centres, primary schools and an OSHC program. The educators at these sites are committed to outdoor learning and take an approach that scaffolds children’s learning rather than dictates.

The early learning sites visited spend more than 80% of each day in the outdoors and they can demonstrate the positive effects more time spent in the outdoor learning environment is having on children’s learning and development. They openly and regularly share these stories with parents and governing bodies, they build a strong culture amongst their staff to share the research and commit to why they are doing it, they build relationships with their broader community to raise awareness, and they adopt an holistic, enabling approach that trusts children’s abilities and supports their learning. The benefits are absolute:

  • higher level of independent thinking, observance and questioning as children engage in hands-on, authentic experiences
  • greater sense of co-operation, compromise, problem-solving and negotiation
  • confidence as every child can find a sense of mastery even those with special rights
  • increase in the use of fine and gross motor skills, core strength, co-ordination, balance and physical endurance as children climb, balance, swing, spin, run, push, pull, roll.
  • decrease in anxiety and negative behaviours as children find what interests them and they are absorbed in the calming aspects of the natural environment
  • keener appreciation for the environment as children can see and experience seasonal changes and make their own discoveries of nature’s elements.
  • greater opportunity for children to take risks and self-assess at levels they are comfortable with.

More than ever, we need to influence the gauze through which our children see and experience the world. We can’t change what’s outside of our control, but we can strive to provide the best play and learning spaces we can for our children, that encourage inspiration and creativity, curiosity and spontaneity and allow risk and failure to be seen as positive learning experiences.

*This study was part of a project commissioned by Department of Education & Child Development to create a resource for educators about The Benefits of Risk in Outdoor Learning Environments. Available free from the NPSA website September 2017.

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