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Go bush with kids this summer, academics urge

Yesterday, six-month-old Leila enjoyed her first ocean swim at Sydney’s Bronte Beach. She squealed with delight as her toes were dipped into the icy water, her smile as broad as the dusky horizon.

Aside from her pleasure, there are other psychological, cognitive and physical merits to a sea dip, or, for that matter, any nature experience.

Education academics Laura McFarland and Shelby Gull Laird, writing in The Conversation, expounded on these, lest caregivers overlook the limited screen time guidelines and allow more thumb-tapping than tree-climbing these holidays. 

The physical

Outdoor time decreases the risk of everything from short-sightedness (probably due to more exposure to light) to allergies and asthma.

Health benefits can also be indirect: studies like this one have shown that kids who use their green thumbs become healthier eaters.

The mental

Put simply, tree or sea time makes kids happier. With fresh air, they are less angry, less likely to act out and more cooperative. As for how this works, McFarland and Laird provide one explanation: attention restoration theory (ART).

They elucidate: “It is thought that modern life requires extended periods of concentration, which leads to mental fatigue. This can make a person irritable and easily distracted. Exposure to nature, however, can help to repair this mental fatigue and restore a person’s wellbeing. The natural environment triggers the body’s relaxation response, where blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels are reduced.”

For ART to be effective, though, you need not bushwhack. The authors noted that even living in a tree-lined street can provide kids with cognitive relief and build their resilience. So, they don’t even need warmer weather to absorb Mother Nature’s restorative properties.

Everything else

Dr Sue Elliott, senior lecturer in early childhood education at the University of New England, is a long-time proponent of outdoor play, whatever the season.

Last year, she informed Early Learning Review of its additional advantages: development of gross motor and risk-management skills through unstructured play, increased confidence and motivation, and a deeper conceptual understanding of and respect for the natural environment.

With this in mind, Leila’s parents dried her frilly bathers, packed a floatie and sunblock, and headed back to the coast. Because physically, cognitively and psychologically, nature’s playtime power is matchless.

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