People like to bring up the ďgood old daysĒ a lot. According to those above a certain age, the mid-late 20th century was filled with nothing but kids riding bikes, friendly neighbours shouting greetings over fences and loving families living the dream in crime-free neighbourhoods. Of course, if you take a look at the pastís history after removing your rose coloured glasses for just a moment, youíll see the truth isnít quite so idyllic. The ďold daysĒ had their problems like any other era.
However there is one lost art from the time before gadgets consumed our lives that our culture is sorely missing: outdoor play. This isnít just some baby boomer crying about how things were better when they were a child; this is a real and present issue that is affecting our childrenís health and development. How? Let us count the ways.
Children are, surprisingly, just small people. And, like all people, they need exercise to stay healthy. Transferring play time from the paddock to the couch has meant they are getting less of this exercise than they ever have. Many children after waking up in the morning are whisked away by the school bus, spend six hours at school, then come home and relax. Unfortunately, all these things involve prolonged periods of sitting. Once when the school day finished children used the time between the bell and dusk to socialise, play sport and adventure. These basic activities are still done today, but instead of taking place outside, a childís leisure time can be almost entirely spent inside, on the net or in front of the TV. This is a dangerous trend. Even at school, breaks are increasingly spent sitting rather than playing. Tougher ďno hat, no playĒ rules, even in high schools, have led to playgrounds and sports fields being left increasingly empty.
Itís not that thereís anything inherently wrong with non-physical forms of entertainment or social interaction: children still learn social skills by interacting with friends over Messenger or Snapchat as they would on the playground, but the physical effects that removing activity has are indeed extremely dangerous.
We are learning more and more about the dangers of inactivity. It used to be one could sit to oneís heart's content without worry, but now science has uncovered the risks. Sitting for prolonged periods without getting up to break up the monotony leads to all sorts of negative health effects, ones which have become rampant in our modern society. For a long time science considered our diet mostly to blame for our population's increases in heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Of course, everyone knew how important exercise was, but few realised that simply sitting still could be doing such rampant harm. But now we know that even simply standing or walking casually are magnitudes better for our health than sitting down.
So sitting is bad, okay, we get it. The thing is with awareness itís not hard to break up periods of sitting with mild activity: the problem is we are teaching our kids the very worst habits at a very young age, and perpetuating the problem.
However for parents itís all very well to say that they should not allow their children to spend so much of their free time inside. Often, there seems to be little other option. In our increasingly paranoid society, with stranger danger drilled into youngsters minds from a young age, it seems that the days of children playing together unsupervised until the sun goes down are well and truly over. If there are no other kids out there to play with, what is the point in sending yours out, many parents ask? Good question, and there is no easy answer. The sad truth is that without a seismic shift in our societyís attitudes, the old approach to playtime is probably lost forever.
Not only is it difficult today for children to get outside to play, but many donít even have the desire to. It can be all very well for parents to force their kids outside, but if the children themselves donít want to be there, then developing a healthy relationship with outdoor play is fraught from the outset. Once, when playing outdoors was the only option for entertainment after school, children would get outside and create. Their imaginations turned the blank canvas of the outdoors into what they wanted it to be. It may sound a bit pretentious, but itís nonetheless true. However today, entertainment comes prepackaged. Why would a kid want to go outside and work out a way to have fun, when he could fire up the Xbox and be guaranteed entertainment instead? Outdoor play is fighting a losing battle against corporate sanctioned play time.
But that doesnít mean that resignation to poor health is the only option going forward. There are simply too many health benefits to an active lifestyle to ignore. There have been studies done on the benefits that can be found from an active lifestyle. Children who spent more time outside have been found to have:
Better social skills: Though children can learn how to interact with their peers in an online space, outdoor play provides a broader range of skills.
Less anxiety: Studies have shown that children who spend time outside are less stressed that those who donít, as play can be an outlet for frustration.
Improved eyesight: Children who spend time outdoors have better long distance sight than children who do not exercise their long distance vision.
Improved motor skills: Outside play develops many muscle groups. Physical exercise is essential for developing physical strength and developing a childís muscles and skeletal structure.
So how can you get your kids outside without feeling like a zealo?. How can you get them outside and be sure they enjoy themselves outside? There are few sneaky ways to get kids outside and having fun.
Stimulus: Kids are used to instant entertainment, they donít want to have to work for enjoyment. Having some simple objects lying around that ignite their curiosity is a good way to spark the progression to natural engagement. Once a kid is having fun organically, they will continue to do so. Itís finding that initial spark that is difficult.
Start early: Thereís nothing wrong with letting your kids enjoy technology to an extent at a young age, indeed itís more than likely essential to get them used to such things considering the world theyíre going to grow up in. However make sure to nurture curiosity of the outdoors in your children as well. Involve them in your own outdoor activities and allow them to develop their own outdoor interests.
Organised sport: It can be important not to swap your child with extra curricular activities - after all, they need time to relax and wind down - but organised saturday morning sport can be a great way to develop not only activity but also social ties. Forcing your child into a sport they have no interest in is probably not going to do much good. Observe whether they show interest in any sport in particular, then discuss the possibility of playing it socially. Be sure to focus on the benefits and the potential for fun.
Donít hover: Safety is important, but itís not the be all and end all. Risk is simply a necessary part of life, and a child who experiences no risk during childhood will grow up developmentally stunted compared to a child who experiences a controlled amount. Once they reach a responsible age there is no reason not to allow you children to explore with their friends unsupervised. For most this will increase the fun factor of outdoor play as well.
Let them get dirty: A torn shirt, scraped knees and muddy shoes are all great signs that your kids are having fun: if they were too busy to care they scraped a knee, they were enjoying themselves. A reasonable amount of contact with dirt and organic matter is also good for the immune system. Too much focus on cleanliness can stunt a childís immune system and lead to sickliness in later life. It can even promote allergies. You donít have to let them eat worms, but you donít need to carry hand sanitizer around with you either. Itís probably doing more harm than good. Interrupting a childís play to ensure they arenít getting dirty will also negatively affect their enjoyment of the activity.
Donít get angry: A child who is adamantly opposed to playing outside is frustrating. However donít be tempted to yell or punish the child for not wanting to. This will only enforce a negative view in the childís mind of going outside, and you will continue to encounter the negative attitude. Itís okay to make them go outside, but do so calmly, then retreat inside yourself and leave them to their own devices for a time. You may just find they donít want to come back in when you go out to check on them.
Children need to spend time outdoors. In fact, everyone should spend more time outdoors. In a society that seems as though it was specially designed to discourage parents from teaching their children about the joys of outdoor play it can be difficult to encourage a healthy lifestyle. But the benefits speak for themselves. In a changing world, in which parents are more pressed for time than ever, itís critical to take the time to ensure your kids are learning good habits at the knee of the best teacher: you.