An important part of children’s early years has been changing in Australia over recent decades. Children are spending less time playing outdoors. There’s many reasons for it.
Children’s use of technology is changing. Things like gaming and YouTube are all engineered for maximum engagement, so children naturally stick to them for longer periods of time. As a society we have become much more aware of safety and seek to eliminate risks from our lives. And over time, the relative value of outdoor play has sometimes reduced the amount of outdoor play time allocated within education environments. The size and density of housing is increasing, leaving less outdoor space for play.
“Kids are naturally active”, says Heart Foundation consultant and UWA Adjunct Professor Trevor Shilton. “Children are not sedentary beings and unfortunately it’s the environments that we construct for them that makes them sedentary.
“When you send them outside they find a stick, a leaf, a ball, a pet. They’ll invent a game. If you sit them in front of a TV or an iPad, then children will sit.”
So, what are the impacts that these changes are having? And what should we do about it?
The first and most obvious impact is the reduction in physical exercise. This is a key factor in the increasing rates of childhood obesity and can have longer term impacts through heart disease, diabetes and chronic diseases.
The second impact is on a child’s learning. Sedentary behaviour is coming at the expense of children’s endless ability to learn through discovery and by engaging with the world around them.
The National Quality Standard for early childhood education emphasises the importance of play-based learning. The framework’s central document is titled, Belonging, Being & Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. It notes that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child “recognises children’s right to play and be active participants in all matters affecting their lives”.
The framework also states: nature-play spaces should “invite open-ended interactions, spontaneity, risk-taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature”.
Portugal is home to Europe’s second highest incidence of childhood obesity. A study undertaken there by Gabriela Bentoand published in the Porto Biomedical Journal, contains further evidence.
“As a natural and compelling activity, play promotes cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being, offering the necessary conditions for children to thrive and learn. Through play, the child can experiment, solve problems, think creatively, cooperate with others, etc., gaining a deeper knowledge about his/herself and the world. From an early age, the possibility to experience several opportunities for unstructured play, in which the child can decide what to do, with whom and how, promotes positive self-esteem, autonomy, and confidence”.
This all provides a highly convincing argument for parents and early learning centres to re-think the importance of outdoor play. For parents, it really comes down to having fun outdoors, in the knowledge of the physical and intellectual benefits that the activity is bestowing on your child. For early learning centres, this is about space and an attitude to embrace the benefits of play based learning with an emphasis of outdoor fresh-air play.