Having recently attended a couple of seminars discussing the benefits of outdoor play it is worrying to note that in recent years, childhood has undergone a massive shift – it has moved indoors for screen time, as opposed to outdoors for play time. This has had many negative health consequences for children which are only now coming into view.
Previously, the teenage years were thought to be the time when children go off exercise and de-camp to their bedrooms – but, a recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (February 2017) suggests it happens much earlier, at around the age of seven years old. I don’t know about you but, this is something I find quite shocking.
The research suggests that, from the time children start school, sitting is replacing physical activity. The research found that:
- The average boy, at age seven, spent 75 minutes a day doing moderate to strenuous physical activity
- This falls to 51 minutes when they are aged 15
- The average girl, at age seven, spent 63 minutes per day in physical activity
- This fell to 41 minutes at age 15
So, the study shows that most boys and girls who took part did moderate levels of exercise at seven, which then gradually tailed off as they got older.
To be clear, this problem isn’t restricted to the United Kingdom – surveys show the same trend occurring throughout much of the developed world. For instance, one study in the USA estimated children spent only about thirty minutes of daily, unstructured, outdoor play, with some children spending more than seven hours a day staring on screen time – replacing reality with virtual alternatives. The same study showed that many boys rack up more than 10,000 gaming hours before the age of twenty-one and of course, during these marathon screen sessions, bodily exercise is restricted largely to finger movement. Children are being de-sensitized and disconnected with nature.
According to at least one US surgeon general, the present generation of children may be the first of the modern age with a life expectancy less than that of their parents. We know that chronic physical and mental illnesses in children have skyrocketed, with childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease on the rise. Scary stuff!
So – what happened to bring about this change?
- The digital revolution, with the rise of computers and handheld gadgets
- The fear factor – mass coverage of paedophilia and child abductions means that many parents are afraid to let their children play outdoors unattended
- There has also been a rise in the ‘well-intentioned’ parent who is worried about their children somehow ‘falling behind’, or ‘missing out’ and are filling their child’s time with extra tuition and other organized activities. This leaves very little time for unstructured hands-on play and outdoor play
- Then there is the urban factor – with the world’s population growth, cities are expanding, with the result that many children live urban lives with little or no connection to nature
Many leading educationalists strongly support the idea that children need less screen time on items such as the TV and iPad, and more time in hands-on activities like painting, exploring, constructing, cooking … and again, research shows that they get the greatest benefits from being outdoors in nature.
Tim Gill’s research amongst others, has shown that time in nature has an impact on physical fitness, emotional health, self-identity, basic values and morals, stress reduction, creativity, and self-esteem. Children who regularly do hands-on activities and play in nature show heightened motor control – including balance, coordination, and agility. They tend to engage more in imaginative and creative play, which in turn fosters language, abstract reasoning, and problem-solving skills, together with a sense of curiosity, and of wonder. As Gail Ryder-Richardson pointed out in a recent seminar, at Childcare Expo in London – outdoor play, natural play is about the process, not the outcome. And it is in the process that we all learn.
Why is this? Well -nature engages all the senses and it has open-ended materials – rocks, sticks, mud, plants, etc., which stimulate more creativity and imagination. So, now we understand the importance of nature for the child but the question is, how can we help our children engage in nature in ways that help them learn and develop?
My next blog gives you ten ideas of how you might help your children (and you?) better connect with nature and make great learning and development opportunities. Have fun – and let me know how you get on!