In many parts of the world, summer is synonymous with holidays and hours of uninterrupted outdoor play. We read about summer time in books and watch movies where children spend all day riding bikes and swimming in clear lakes. But in Australia summer is different. Australia is a country of extremes. And it’s rarely more extreme than in the summer months when temperatures in parts of the country push 45 degrees celsius.
So if you’re a parent with young children and you want your child to have an active, outdoor life, what can you do? How can you survive the heat with kids?
Before we answer the question, we need to change our mindset. While summer might be the best time for outdoor play in places like North America and Scandinavia, in Australia it is our most tricky season. We’re not likely to be kept inside by snow days or blizzards, but there will be times when hot weather, dangerous conditions and high UV levels force our kids inside, and that’s ok.
Actually winter, when the sun is shining, and the UV is low is the perfect time for all-day outdoor adventures. Even overcast Australian days tend to be mild, so committing to getting outside through out the rest of the year, whatever the weather, and not relying on summer as a golden time for outdoor play, is the important first step.
But what do you actually do in summer when temperatures start rising?
First, you need to establish a new summer rhythm. In our family, we get up early to play but stay inside between 10 am and 2 pm, to avoid the worst of the heat. If you do that, there are then two modes of summer, the indoor summer and the outdoor summer, and within those modes, we can make some choices that will help us make the most of those hot days.
Here are my tips.
1. Get out early and stay out late.
If you can organise rest time and naps around the middle of the day then you can make the most of the cool mornings and evenings.
2. Stay safe.
Australia has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world. So being sun safe is extremely important. Invest in good sun protection—hats, long sleeve shirts, a sunscreen you love, sunglasses and a beach umbrella or shelter. Store these items by the front door or in the car, so they’re always ready when you're heading out.
And don’t leave them at home on overcast days. UV levels can be high even when it doesn’t feel hot and sunny. The Cancer Council’s SunSmart app provides an hour by hour forecast of UV and gives advice as to when sun protection is needed.
3. Find some shade.
When choosing a place to play outside, prioritise shade. Parks and playgrounds differ greatly when it comes to how many trees and shady areas they have. This is the time of year to travel a little further so you can find one with the right amount.
Keep in mind that natural shade, provided by trees and vegetation, is far better than shade cloths, because plants transpire, and this can cool the air by as much as ten degrees. The playground surfaces also have an effect on the overall temperature of a space, manmade surfaces like soft fall and concrete are much hotter than mulch and grass.
4. Play with water.
There’s a reason most preschools have water trays or tables. All that running, jumping, lifting, tipping and splashing children do when playing with water is developing their gross and fine motor skills.
A beach or river is the best place for water play. But if you don’t have access to those natural spaces (and your council doesn’t have water restrictions), then water play can easily be replicated in a backyard or on a balcony. A tub of water, a couple of buckets or cups and a small watering can provides hours of fun.
Simple activities like running under the sprinkler or watering the garden are great ways to keep kids cool. And you can switch up the evening bath routine by using a tub in the backyard.
5. Pack a picnic.
Snacks that have a high water content--like watermelon, cucumber and berries--are great for kids in summer. Flasks can hold ice and will keep drinking water cold even on the hottest days. And here’s a tip, if you add some ice bricks to your picnic then wrap the whole thing in an old woollen jumper or blanket (100% wool works best) it will keep things ice cold. Wool is much more effective than plastic cooler bags. With this trick, I’ve even been able to take homemade ice cream to the beach and keep it frozen.
We often think of picnics being a lunchtime activity, but in summer, breakfast and dinner picnics are better. And remember you don’t always have to cook—sandwiches and smoothies are a perfect summer midweek meal.
Even with all those useful tips, in Australia, a significant chunk of our kid’s summer will still be spent indoors. But don’t lose heart, indoor time can still be active and fun.
6. Limit screen time.
While there’s nothing wrong with a bit of screen time every now and then, if we’re turning the TV on every afternoon when the weather forces our kids indoors, they are missing out on other experiences that are better for them.
Colouring, painting, playing with blocks, building things out of boxes, play dough and dress ups all provide better opportunities for learning and development. Inviting friends over to play is the simplest way to make indoor play more fun and exciting.
When it’s really hot, after children have been outside to play, they will need a rest. Nothing beats curling up under a fan and reading, but children’s podcasts and audiobooks are also a great substitute for television, and many are available for free through the ABC Kid’s Listen App or your local library.
8. Use someone else's air-conditioning.
We’ve all done it, a really hot day has sent us running to the local air-conditioned cinema or shopping centre. But remember libraries, art galleries and museums are also air-conditioned and many provide classes and activities for children throughout the year.
9. More water play.
Indoor swimming pools are a great option on a hot day because kids can stay active and cool at the same time. For older kids, indoor ice-rinks and rock climbing centres are a healthier choice than the movies, and can be a great option when the budget allows it.
Finally, in all this, it helps to remember that summer is a season. And it will pass. Go easy on yourself and don’t let the hot weather dampen your attempts to give your kids an active, outdoor childhood.
If you're looking for more inspiration check out this post about how one family plays outside throughout the year in Darwin, NT, where average monthly temperatures sit at around 30 degrees celsius.
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I like decluttering. I love the feeling of carting bag loads of items out of the house, destined for the charity shop.
I love the look of a cupboard that’s just been sorted, the way my belongings seem more beautiful and useful when they stand alone, uncluttered.
But there is one area I’ve found hard to sort—my kid's toys.
And I’m not alone.
Minimalist Facebook groups, blog posts and forums are crowded with questions from parents asking how to declutter toys. How to know which to keep and how many to get rid of.
There are good reasons to reduce our children’s toys and simplify their bedrooms and play spaces. Reasons that are supported by research.
Most famous is a 1990’s project by Rainer Strick and Elke Schubert implemented in a German Kindergarten, where toys were packed away for three months.
What happened to the preschoolers when all their toys were gone? Well, not much really. They quickly came up with other ways to play. They went outside and built dens in the school’s garden. They used tables and chairs to make cubbies and invented pretend worlds with their imaginations.
It turned out, less toys led to more creativity, more collaboration and more imaginary play.
A University of Toledo study published in 2018 found something similar. Researches observed toddlers in two play situations. At first, the children were given a box of sixteen toys to play with and then only four.
The quality of children’s play in each scenario was measured against indicators. And what the study found was that the duration and depth of play was affected by the number of toys. With fewer toys allowing for more sustained periods of play.
At the end of the study, researchers asked parents how many toys were in their child’s environment, at home. ‘A lot’ was the answer given by some of the parents, with others guessing a number close to 90.
And this is where it gets hard. Most of us are overwhelmed by the number of toys our children have, and we don’t know where to start when it comes to simplifying.
What I’ve learnt is that even armed with the knowledge that fewer toys are better for play, If my kids are the main reasons for getting rid of our toys, my best efforts will quickly fail.
Because I know my children will play happily in a room bursting with toys.
And even when they are spilling out of baskets and jammed in cupboards, each toy I pick up has at some point been loved. Each item reminds me of a period of beautiful play.
And deep down I feel if I get rid of an item I’m denying my children the chance to experience that joy again.
Of course, I'm not. It’s the play that is special and play comes from within, it’s not from anything you can buy at a store.
But still, if I’m going to convince myself to declutter toys, I need a better reason.
And that reason is me.
So now before I start a cleanup, I ask myself a few questions.
What kind of life do I want?
Do I want to spend these precious years picking up, sorting and organising toys?
Do I want to feel angry and resentful each time I walk into my children’s rooms?
Do I want it to take hours to get the house tidy before a friend comes to play?
I don’t want my house to overwhelm me.
Instead, I want more time for afternoon walks, trips to the library, and pancakes on the weekend. More money for family adventures and to give to those who really need it.
And more space in our life for connection and joy.
And this realisation makes it easier.
I know the kids won’t notice the toys I take to the charity shop, but I will.
And that’s the best part.
Two years ago I sat on the balcony of my parents holiday house with a notepad in hand. I had just made a decision that would change our lives forever.
Here’s what I had written on the notepad,
Take my children outside for three hours every day for a year.
My son was three and my daughter was one that day and were riding a scooter on the balcony beside me. All of us were watching the kookaburras swoop down from the scribbly gums trees.
I was nervous about setting out on such a big project when my children were so young.
I was worried about adding more to our already busy lives.
Today I wish I could send a message to that mother on the balcony. I would tell her not to worry.
Because I now know, when you shift your focus, when you make playing outside a priority for your kids, then magic happens.
And here is some of the magic, some of the benefits of shifting things around to make more time to go outside.
1. Happier Children
What young children want to do most is play. And when we let them, when we give them time to run wild, without interruption, they are happier.
2. Healthy Kids
My kids get sick less and bounce back quicker when they do. And playing outside also ensures they stay in a healthy weight range and develop the skills they need to succeed.
My kids run easily and have no trouble holding a pencil. They are strong and have a level of fitness that allows them to keep going, which has increased their perseverance and confidence.
3. Calmer Evenings
When my children are outside for hours, they use up all their excess energy, and our evenings are calmer. They will sit and play quietly, or colour at the kitchen table and the house feels peaceful and cosy.
4. Kids who eat their dinner
Most children snack less outside—they are too busy. And ‘hunger is the best seasoning,’ says author Karen Le Billon. Which is true.
When my kids come to the table hungry they are more willing to try new foods and more likely to eat everything put in front of them.
5. Less sibling rivalry and more beautiful play
Children argue less outdoors. A lot less.
Instead, they have incredible, sustained, imaginary play. And after a day of that kind of play they come inside beaming, and the best of friends.
6. Children who go to bed early
Children who ask to go to bed before their bed time—it seems like a work of fiction, but it’s not.
When children move for hours, when they don't sit immobile in front of screens, sleep comes naturally. And they don’t fight it.
7. A house that stays tidy
Outside my children spend hours transporting sand and water, mixing mud with sticks, and moving branches to build cubbies.
If we stay inside, they play in much the same way. They transport items from the drawers to the floor, they mix lego with crayons and build forts out of all the pillows in the house.
The kind of play that is ok outside, is chaos inside.
Walking into a tidy house at the end of a day of play is still my favourite thing about getting my kids outside.
8. More time together
Unplugging, walking away from the to-do list and going outside together has only added to our lives.
It’s meant more time sitting by a fire, and walking by the sea and afternoons in the garden as the sun sets. It’s meant more connection and less distraction.
9. A brighter life
Back on that very first morning when I decided to go outside for my kids. I had no idea the benefits would be for me too.
I had no idea about the way nature calms you. I didn't know my worries could get lost in the sky.
Now I make tea and drink it on the balcony, I go out to pick herbs for dinner and take a moment to stare up at the star-studded sky.
And I do it for myself. Because I know an outdoor life is a happier, healthier and more fulfilling one.
For my children and me.
When my son was two he was fussy.
Here is a complete list of the foods he would eat: milk, pasta, rice, bread, chicken nuggets and fish fingers, chips, watermelon, tiny teddies and wheat-bix.
We used to tell friends he was a milk-drinking vegan. But that was generous because he didn't eat plants, except the refined white variety.
We had done everything right. I handmade all his baby food, we ate meals together at the table, I always put a variety of things on his plate, and I didn't make special meals for him.
Although over time I started adding fish fingers on the side of our plates so that at least he would eat something.
Then in 2016 everything changed. We made a decision. We decided to stop shopping at the supermarket.
We were going to try eating only outdoor food. Food sold outside, grown outside, that had spent most of its life outside.
I would supplement the market hauls by shopping at a little bulk shop for grains, dried lentils, nuts and tea. But I stopped buying processed food altogether. And I honestly didn't know what my son would eat.
But something amazing happened. And it started with an apple.
‘Try this young chap,’ said Rob, leaning over his stand, handing Ezra a piece of apple. And to my surprise he did.
Then he tried carrot and cucumber from Pete’s organic stand. And he loved them. We started calling them ‘market snacks’. he would remind me in the car on the way, ‘Don’t forget to get me a carrot, Mum’ he would say.
The first time he tasted ham was after a farmer showed him pictures of his grandchildren riding on the back of his fat pigs.
And the first time he tried sausages was when I ordered a side of beef online. The farmers dropped it off at our place on a Friday night. Ezra was waiting up in his pyjamas for him, and the arrival of the white truck was more exciting than Santa Clause.
We stopped buying things in packets. I started cooking snacks from scratch. And because pikelets, crepes and flatbreads tasted so good hot from the pan, he decided fried potatoes and eggs would be nice too.
There was a world of difference between the market food we were eating and what had previously been available to us at the supermarket.
Many local farmers have a deep connection to nature and grow food in a way that regenerates rather than depletes the environment.
Some showed us patches of remnant bushland on their property they looked after, removing invasive species, and protecting new trees and plants from pests. We found dairy farmers who use returnable glass milk bottles, taking responsibility for the whole life cycle of their product.
We learnt about how small-scale farmers use compost and manure to cycle nutrients and fertilise their plants and paddocks. What we hadn't realised was that industrial agriculture has discarded this ancient zero-waste practice in favour of artificial fertilisers.
Artificial fertilisers that are made of petroleum, and are a non-renewable. Chemicals that the destroy the soil’s structure and contributes to erosion and land degradation. We learnt that runoff from these fertilisers, and the pesticides that often join them, pollute rivers and streams, eventually flowing out into the ocean.
The farmers we met used antibiotics sparingly, and many not at all. They didn't need too. They explained that animals who live outdoors and have plenty of space, clean water and natural food rarely get sick. Unlike intensively farmed chicken and pigs who spend their lives indoors and are fed antibiotics daily, to protect them from the diseases which otherwise would be rife in an environment where up to 60,000 hens are housed in a single shed.
Shopping at the farmers' markets changed the way we eat. We now eat less imported food and more of what’s in season, less chicken and more chickpeas. And we love it.
And I now have a five-year-old who eats feta, leek and spinach. Who loves real food and gets excited about a new stand at the markets or a favourite vegetable that has come back into season.
But his fussiness isn't gone completely. The other day in a shop a cashier offered him a jelly lolly. It was lime green.
‘I don’t think I want to try that.’ he said to me quietly.
‘That’s fine’ I said. ‘You don’t have to.’
It’s funny, I thought. How often do we blame our children for their fear of food. ‘It’s developmental’ we say, or ‘they are stubborn.’
But what if the problem is ours? As a society we have turned food into something unreal. We eat food that comes in boxes, is grown using poisonous chemicals, travels great distances and we source it from cold corridors, devoid of life.
In a supermarket, we have thousands of options and even adults don't understand the ingredients in much of what we eat. No wonder our children find it scary.
What I've learnt is if you want to change the way your toddler eats, there is really only one thing you need to do.
Shop for real food.
Food you can't find in the deep freezer of a giant chain store. Or in a packet at the back of a shelf.
Real food is out in the sunshine. Hanging over your neighbour’s fence, growing in a garden, in the back of a farmer's ute or on a trellis table at a market.
There are no self-service checkouts where you buy real food. You’ll have to talk to someone to get it. But it will come with a conversation. With a smile and a story, and sometimes even an invitation to play at the farm where it all began.
And that might be the best part of all.
Hannah and Tim both grew up in Sydney. They are both lawyers and neither of them went camping when they were kids. Then in 2017, they moved to Darwin as a family.
And it changed their lives.
I loved interviewing Hannah for this post and you will love it too. Hannah's boys are three and one, and also happen to be my nephews. Their wild outdoor adventures are sure to inspire you. Enjoy!
On life in Darwin
Darwin is a pretty extreme place. It’s the top end of Australia. The weather is full on. It’s roughly 33 degrees celsius all year, except when it’s storming, and then it drops to about 28 degrees.
Most of the time it feels hotter because of the extreme humidity. The storms are huge and dramatic. And cyclones are a real threat (we just experienced one). Darwin is a wild place.
It’s also very beautiful. There are heaps of birds and every night the sky fills with amazing colours at sunset.
On surviving the heat
At first, Darwin felt like a very difficult place to raise two small kids…so hot and sweaty all the time! And mid-morning visits to the park were just not a good option. But we are getting much better at picking the right moment and the right space for the weather. The play space has to be shaded or wet, preferably both! And mostly our outside play needs to be early morning or late afternoon.
But within those limits, we’ve still found some great things to do. Walking through rainforests, sliding down shady sand dunes, climbing over rocks to find little rock pools along the coast, riding bikes and scooters along the excellent coastal paths, swimming at the pool, and when we need to be close to home: running under the sprinkler, digging in the mud, playing with the hose, hooning around with trucks and buckets during a storm.
On outdoor food
Our standards are: chopped cucumber and carrot, wraps with peanut butter, and a bit of tropical fruit to sweeten the deal.
And always water-bottles!
We also have a backyard garden that mainly consists of native and tropical plants and shrubs, but we try our hand at a few herbs. The boys love to pick the basil and add it to dinner.
We knew when we moved to Darwin that we wanted to get out and explore the NT. We bought a tent, swag and a blow-up mattress at the start of the dry season, from there we have added bits and pieces as we saw the need, and as friends have shown us their tricks.
It’s season dependent. During the dry season last year (May-August), we got out quite a bit, about every second or third weekend. Last year we mainly explored Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks as weekend trips. Hoping to do more of that this year, together with some longer trips to the Red Centre and through the Kimberleys.
When we’re camping, we explore, play in the bush, watch the wildlife, find waterfalls, cook meals around the campfire, and swim if it’s safe (the croc-threat is real.) They boys love camping. To them, it’s a big adventure in which they get lots of Mum and Dad time, and lots of space to run and play.
Tim and I weren't campers before we moved to the Northern Territory. We hadn't camped as children or adults. It’s been a big learning experience. We’ve learnt that most difficult part is getting out the door. From there it’s great. Camping has been an awesome reminder of how refreshing it is to be in nature. We come back tired and dirty, but calm.
It’s also an exercise in living simply. We don’t take any toys with us, but so far we’ve not had any issues keeping the boys entertained. Some sticks for drawing and building, an amazing landscape, and adults to help them explore is all they need. Once we get out the door, it almost becomes an easier weekend experience than if we were at home.
On surviving the wet season
The rain during the wet season actually makes it a lot easier to be outside. It’s not like being down south where the rain makes you feel cold. Here, the rain is no colder than your bath! It’s actually a great time to be outside, run around, ride a bike etc. Obviously we get indoors if there’s thunder and lightning, or it’s torrential. But otherwise, we enjoy the rain.
Yes, sometimes it does feel like there are lots of things in Darwin out to get you. Stingers, crocodiles, cyclones, melioidosis (a soil-borne disease that comes to the surface after the rain), snakes… the list goes on! We try to be aware of the risks and make appropriate choices about where and when we play. For example, we do play a lot in puddles after the rain, but I make the kids wear gumboots (because of meliodosis). We do swim in natural water spots, but we choose spots that crocodiles cannot get to (e.g. up high and surrounded by rocks) and we get outside and run like crazy before the cyclone strikes!
On the benefits of outdoor play
Playing outside wears them out so they go to sleep easier. They are calmer when we do come inside. They don’t fight with each other so much (especially when we are camping and there are no toys to fight over). They are more creative. And they (and we) are more relaxed.
On new persectives
We’ve learnt respect for “country”, in all its beauty and harshness. Places like Kakadu, that are so un-touched, are a striking reminder of how beautiful and awe-inspiring the Australian country is – and what gifted custodians of the land Australia’s First People are.
And we’ve come to value wild, open, natural space a lot more than we did when we lived in the city.
When my son was three, my husband gave him a knife.
He gave him one because at the time our son loved watching his dad pull out his pocket knife and use it to cut pieces of rope or a slice of apple. And he wanted one of his own.
My husband is the tough, outdoorsy sort. So it’s not surprising that he found a little red pocket knife for our son, one that fitted nicely in his three-year-old hand—it’s surprising that I let him keep it.
Because in the past I wouldn't have. I would have said three was too young for knives, that thirteen would be better or seventeen. I used to think that was my job as a mother—to keep my children safe.
‘Nice idea darling,’ I would have said to my husband, ‘but times have changed.’ And I would have been right about that, times have changed.
Safety is a much higher priority for mothers’ today than it was in the past. Germ covers for shopping trolleys, knee pads for crawlers and digital heart-rate monitors are a few examples of the multitude of products that promise to help us in our mission to keep our children safe and dry.
Today’s mums like playgrounds with fences and indoor play centres full of foam mats with no sharp edges. And we like to speak loudly to our children and tell them to stop, put that stick down and be careful.
Because we believe good mothers do everything to keep their child safe. But is that actually true?
Well, I used to think it was. But now I know it isn’t.
It’s more complicated than that—here’s why.
Most of the time we don’t notice it, but we live in a society that is obsessed with risk aversion. We think it’s normal to prevent risk at all costs. Especially risks that involve children.
And we are so focused on banning risky activities; we fail to notice all the benefits we lose when we do so.
Take Thredbo’s recent decision to ban tobogganing at it’s NSW Ski fields. Sure, speeding down the ice on a piece of plastic involves risks, and some of them are serious. But tobogganing is also very good for children.
The best thing about it is all the exercise they get, dragging their toboggan up a snowy hill, over and over again. A pretty significant benefit when you consider the fact that two-thirds of Australian children don’t get enough physical activity and 1 in 4 is overweight or obese.
We are also not as good at assessing risk as we think we are.
When our child is up in a tree, higher than we want them to be, we have a strong response. The idea that they might fall consumes us, we can’t stop thinking about it, and we can even feel physically sick.
But most of us don’t feel like that when we strap our children into the back of a car.
And when we send our children to school to sit in a chair for most of the day, we don’t even consider the risk of inactivity. Even though researchers have found inactivity to be responsible for 7% of the global burden of disease for type-2 diabetes and 10% for both breast and colon cancer. And that overall physical inactivity causes about 9% of deaths worldwide.
And then there’s the fact that allowing children to take risks also does something pretty surprising—it makes them safer.
In 2017 when Australian researchers studied what happened when educators started lighting campfires in their Newcastle preschool. They were surprised that the preschoolers began talking more about fire safety. And even incorporated ideas about safety into their dramatic play.
And a 2015 study from Belgium found that when children aged 3 to 8 participated in 14 weeks of risky play, their ability to detect risks increased. And so did their self-esteem.
When us Mums take over the job of keeping our children safe. We take away our child’s responsibility and autonomy.
But when we allow our children to take age-appropriate risks, we open up a conversation about safety. They understand that we trust them to use their judgement. And we expect them to be responsible and to be aware of their surroundings.
And when we do that we find out our children are much more capable or assessing risk and keeping themselves safe than we thought.
That’s what happened with the pocket knife. We let our son have one. There were conditions, of course. It lived with Dad’s knife out of reach and was used under supervision.
Our son learnt it was a tool, not a toy. He understood he had a responsibility to use it safely. And he loved it. Opening seed pods and whittling sticks made outdoor play more engaging, and his confidence grew.
Now I stand on the other side. And I know how hard it can be to be the mum who lets your child do risky things.
Last week a friend and I took a walk along a local bike track. She pushed her baby in the pram while our four other children rode their bikes along beside us.
Towards the end of the walk our two eldest, both five, decided to ride as fast as they could to the end of the path. It was quite a long way, and at times they were so far ahead we couldn’t quite see them around the corner. But they are sensible kids, we trusted them to keep themselves safe.
An older lady, walking the other direction along the path, noticed our kids before she saw us. By the time she got over to us, she had a stern look on her face, ‘Your children are very far ahead you know’ she said.
But I just smiled.
Because I no longer feel it’s my job to protect my children from all potential harm. It’s to raise them to be confident, responsible and brave.
I’ve decided I’m going to give my children the freedom to take risks. I’m going to let them do adventurous things.
Because in twelve years my son will get behind the wheel of a car, without me at his side. And we both need to be ready for that.
In September 2016 our family turned off our screens.
We went cold turkey. No television, no tablets, and no smartphones, during daylight hours. My husband and I were allowed our computers and phones for work, and we could contact friends and family at night when the kids were in bed. At the time our children were one and three and were watching an hour of children’s television in the afternoon of most days. Plus the news in the morning with Dad and a little bit of iPad time to calm them down before their nap. We thought a screen-free month would we hard, but we had no idea how it would change our lives. Here’s what we learnt.
When our children had plenty of time to play outside, they didn’t need screen-time. The month fell within a year-long family project—Our Year Outdoors. So our kids were spending three hours or more outside each day. And that made all the difference. All that running, climbing, swimming and jumping made them physically very tired. In the afternoon, after their bath, they played cars or blocks or sat in the lounge room reading library books in their pyjamas. And I could count on a couple of quiet hours to cook dinner in peace.
The afternoons were calmer that month and so were the mornings. In fact, about halfway through the month, we noticed a kind of quiet peacefulness descend on our household. The kids played more creatively and argued less. In general, they seemed happier. I was surprised that I noticed a difference when my kids had only been using screens for an hour a day. But I found research that supported what I saw—that even a small amount of screen time can have a negative impact on young children. In fact, a University of Virginia study found that four-year-olds experienced a drop in executive functioning skills after watching as little as 9 minutes of fast-paced cartoons.
I noticed other things that month too. I started to see how our collective dependence on screens is changing the landscape of childhood.
When I was a child my mum read The Little House in the Big Woods to my brothers and me. I remember being shocked by what took place at the dinner table in the little house. In the chapter about their Christmas celebrations, the protagonist Laura explained that she and her sister Mary did not say a word during the meal, because ‘they knew that children should be seen and not heard.’
The concept was utterly foreign to me. At that time I had lived most of my life in a university flat, on the bottom floor of a residential college. My Dad worked at the college and as part of his job he often invited homesick international students to our place for my Mum’s beef casserole and butterscotch pudding. The constant stream of interesting, young dinner guests helped my brother, who was six, develope a budding interest in politics. I was only three, but I was fascinated by their stories and loved it when they told us about what their own mothers cooked at home. Once after a meal at our place, I was invited to a dark-haired student’s tiny dorm room. She gave me lollies and let me sit on her beds and flick through her fat university textbooks. Another day an American student made a cassette tape of stories for my brothers and me. We treasured that tape and his Yankee version of Old MacDonald's Farm, long after he had returned to his homeland.
When I was a child I was included in all the conversations held at the dinner table. Now, I saw that I often used technology to push my own children aside. And it wasn’t only me. I noticed it a lot that September. At a dinner party where the kid's table was set up in front of a Disney movie, a child glued to an iPad in the doctor’s waiting room, and that most familiar gesture—a blinking iPhone passed across a cafe table. I had seen these scenes many times before, I had done them myself. But now I started to wonder. Were we on the road to recreating a culture where our children’s voices were not welcome? Where they would be allowed to be seen, but not heard?
I read a lot that month, and I learnt there were many reasons why limiting my children's screen time was a good idea.
In 2006 a study found that the time children spent on screens tended to take away from the time they spent engaged in creative play or interacting with parents and siblings—two things that are essential for learning and development.
Another study, published in 2015, found that as little as one hour of regular television viewing in kindergarten was associated with an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese in childhood—even when you adjusted for parental education levels and household income.
According to a University of Bristol study, children who spend more than two hours a day on screens also have an increased risk of psychological difficulties.
More recently, in a poll by the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, two-thirds of Australian parents admitted they fought with their children about turning off devices on a daily basis.
In September 2016 our family gave up the battle. And the truth is, we have never really had it again. In our house screens are now the exception rather than the rule. And to our surprise, nobody really misses them.
It’s more than a year since our screen-free month, and our children are now three and five. These days we use screens sparingly. My five year old sometimes uses my laptop to type up a story he is writing. My daughter likes using my iPhone to take photos or create text messages full of emojis for her Grandma who lives interstate. But they don't have screen time daily. My husband and I also try to stay off our computers, until the kids have gone to bed. And although we sometimes watch a family movie together on a Friday night, weeks go by without us ever turning the TV on for the kids.
For me, the best change is that I no longer rely on screens to get through the day. I now know if my children are tired, I can put music on and we can dance on the kitchen tiles together. If they are grumpy, I can tell them stories or read them poems or sing them songs. And if, after dinner, my daughter has trouble calming down before bed, then I can carry her out to the balcony so we can say goodnight to the moon. And if need be, I can rock her to sleep—under an ancient sky.
My amazing, beautiful, creative friend Bonnie lives in a Sydney with her husband Dan and their two little girls. She runs a photography business from home, her husband works long hours, and she is pregnant their third baby, yet, somehow she still has the cleanest kitchen of anyone I know. And her kids get plenty of time to play outside.
Bonnie’s apartment is an oasis. She has a lovely leafy fig tree in her lounge room, potted succulents on her windowsills and dried plants on display around the house. And she’s always happy to put the kettle on and sit down for a chat. So that's exactly what I did this week (although this time via Skype) and I asked her for a bit of insight into how she does it all. I hope you’re ready to be inspired.
On living in Sydney
I live on the north shore of Sydney, quite close to a main highway, in an apartment of about nine units that was built in the 1940s. I live with my husband Daniel, Poppy who is three, Georgie who is one and we have another baby on the way.
We love living in Sydney. It’s exciting, daunting, busy and very diverse.
On getting outside to play
Our rule of thumb is that we go out every day. If I go out once a day, I’m happy. If we don't get outside, we do have a little bit of grass near the clothesline, I can take the girls down there in the afternoon. Or when Daniel gets home I send them down there with him. They can have dessert outside or have dinner outside and that gives them a chance to run around.
On apartment living
It’s such a tight space. We also live on the top floor so if we don’t get out I notice the girls are soon thumping around. Georgie still naps so if we get outside in the morning it means that Poppy will have some quiet time and I can have a rest. If we stay inside, it isn't like that at all. We are all on top of each other and no one gets a break. So the strategy is to get outside and tucker them out, as well as make the most of the sunshine.
On Sydney weather
We are pretty lucky. The summers aren't super hot. And the winters are mild. So you can get around year round without having to wear a heavy coat. Sydney’s weather means you can get out most days without too much worry.
On things that make it hard
Our biggest challenges are stairs and parking. I buy our groceries online so I don't have to go to all that effort to get down the stairs and to the car and end up only inside in the supermarket. It’s harder work now that I’m pregnant, but I know we just need to plan and be strategic. We have a pram in each of our cars so we don't need to unpack them each time or carry it up the stairs.
Our favourite places to play
We love the Incinerator Park in Willoughby, Woorongah Park, Clifton Gardens, and Sydney beaches. Balmoral is the particularly great beach for kids.
One of the other places we go to often is Taronga Zoo. We bought a pass this year and there was a deal when we did, so we got some bonus children’s passes which we gave to the girls’ cousins. We go there and just hang out. They have a lovely playground, water play, a petting zoo, animals and the most amazing view of the harbour.
A rule of thumb for me, as a mum, is that wherever we go, there has to be a cafe. A park for the kids and a good coffee for me.
What’s do we pack to eat outside?
Cheese and Vegemite sandwiches, strawberries, blueberries, bananas and grapes. And I’m eating a BAE role and a flat white, of course.
On growing up wild
I actually grew up in Seattle with two older sisters. I feel like my parents were pretty lenient. We had a group of neighbourhood kids, we called ourselves 'the neighbourhood gang'. There were no phones and no parents telling us that we couldn't go anywhere we wanted. There were woods and ravines and so we would trek for hours. We had a dog that roamed free with us as well. These days what our parents let us do would be called negligence. But for us it was wonderful. I think naturally a child wants to explore and it's just that we were allowed to, so we did. We used to go blackberry picking. There was a lot of rain is Seattle but it didn't really stop us. We had to play outside, even in the wet so we just jumped in puddles and played in the mud. My sisters and I still call those years our golden years. We had our woods, we had our ravine and we had our freedom. On some days, I think we even ended up in a different suburb.
The best piece of advice for apartment living…
One big tip I have is stock your boot. If you’re not well prepared living in an apartment, you’ll stay inside. I keep a towel, nappies, wipes, a bucket and spade, their scooters and a blanket in the car. Even if you can’t do that, having it all in a basket by the door makes it easier.
On indoor nature
I love to have living plants around. It’s a way to bring the outdoors in. Something about having life growing around you is really enriching. I talk to my plants as I water them, and so the girls do to. They carry their little teacups around and water the plants like mummy.
I never stop the girls from bringing sticks, leaves or seedpods inside. I even have a little mat and I let them put their treasures there.
We also have lots of books about nature at our place. And because of what we read Poppy will say, ‘Mummy what’s the name of that bird?, Whats the name of that insect?’
I find that having that inspiration for nature when you’re inside fosters the love of it when you’re outside.
Your favourite books?
We like Gecko press, the Big Book of Animals of the World. We also like ‘I spy’ books. We read books to Poppy and now when we are outside, I ask her, ‘What can you see?’ ‘What can you collect?’ And she is happy to go and explore.
Thanks for having us, Bonnie!
All photos by Bonnie Maher, except family photo by Sam Riles Photography.
Check out this amazing nature playground in Sydney.
You might also like these articles: 10 tips to help you get outdoors with your kids more often and Six ways to get outside when you live in the city
Rainy days don't mean you need to stay inside with young children. There are lots of fun things to do outside when it’s wet and as long as you have gumboots and a raincoat (or you don't mind getting a little wet) there is no reason to miss out.
1. Jump in puddles.
It’s still my kid's favourite thing to do in the rain.
2. Play in the mud.
Take some buckets, shovels and spades into a muddy section of your yard and get digging. Sand toys make great rain toys when it’s wet and cars and trucks can get muddy too. If you don't have a backyard, you can still dig in the mud at your local park, you will most likely have the whole place to yourselves.
3. Take a walk.
In an article about taking her young nephew outside, Rachel Carson, wrote ‘Nature reserves some of her choice rewards for days when her mood may appear to be sombre.’ I often think about this quote when we go out in the rain. Raindrops sparkle on leaves, mist clings to the trees, the air tastes cool and fresh. A walk in the rain is something special, for children and adults alike
4. Ride a bike or trike in the rain.
Don’t ask me why but kids seem to love this one. Just make sure you don't forget to pop their helmet under their raincoat hood.
5. Visit a beach or river.
It might not be a great day for swimming but it can still be fun to visit the water on a wet day. The sand is different when it’s been rained on and it’s even better for making sandcastles.
6. Plant something.
Seedlings love nothing more than a good drink to get them going in the ground. And the garden is a lovely place to be in the rain
7. Make leaf boats.
Or if you are younger than three, just throw leaves and sticks into puddles—hours of fun.
8. Have an outdoor bath.
Find that toddler pool that you usually only use in summer, or a deep tub and fill it with warm water. Add a few flower petals if you have some and let your kids have a soak in the rain. It’s the perfect way to finish a busy day of mud play
9. Choose your own adventure.
These are just some of the things we have done in the rain, but honestly, I rarely plan things to do outside. The trick is just getting out there. If we put our coats and boots on and get out the door, the kids rarely need ideas of things to do. They make their own fun. And the best part? Your house will feel so lovely and cosy, when you come back inside after a few hours out in the rain. Hot chocolate anyone?
Want more tips on getting outside with your kids? Have a look HERE.
A few days before I became a mother, a friend gave me a present. It was wrapped in brown paper and she handed it to me while we sipped tea and ate biscuits in her lounge room.
‘When you get home, pop this straight in your hospital bag.’ she told me.
I unwrapped it and inside was a little red notebook and a felt-tipped pen. It was a beautiful gift, but I had no idea what it was for.
Our son arrived the following Tuesday. On our first night in hospital, when the midwife came to check on us, she reminded me that there were classes each morning for new parents. Monday was a breastfeeding class, the next day there was one on baby-care and the next day sleep and settling. So early the next morning, I wheeled the plastic bassinet down the corridor and found a spot to sit up the back. I took out the little red book and started taking notes.
I took that book everywhere over the next year. In it, my scrawly handwriting documents my determination to be a perfect mother.
Feed the baby on demand, the notes on the first page read, babies must sleep on their backs and, drink plenty of water while breastfeeding. There are notes from the paediatrician visits: tummy time for 20 minutes, 3 times a day, the six-month classes: homemade purees have more texture, and from articles that I read: music is good for babies’ brains. I took everything down in that little book. And I tried to follow it all.
But in all those notes from all those classes there is one piece of advice that was missing.
Nobody told me to take my baby outside.
And so I didn’t. Of course, there were times I did. I used to push him around the block in his pram when he was grizzly. We went on holidays when he was six weeks old and he slept in a bassinet on the sand. But it was never something I did intentionally.
But I did know that outdoor play was good for pre-schoolers though. So when Ezra turned two my husband and I started taking him outside, more often. The funny thing was, by that stage we also had our newborn baby girl in tow. And we soon discovered that being outside was wonderful for her too. Here’s why…
Pretty quickly we noticed that our daughter Phoebe slept better on the days we went outside. There is a reason for this. When researchers at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK monitored the sleep patterns of 56 newborn babies they found those exposed to higher amounts of daytime light—slept better at night. This study was conducted in 2004 but the idea of taking little ones outside is not new. For generations, parents in Scandinavian countries have sent their babies outside to nap, wrapping them up in cosy layers when outdoor temperatures drop below freezing. Why? Well in her book, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, Swedish American Mum Linda Åkeson McGurk explains that Scandi Mums and Dads find that their babies sleep better outside. Apparently, they nap longer and wake up feeling more refreshed—read, less grumpy—which sounds pretty good to me.
Children learn to crawl, sit, stand and walk on their own, by exploring the world around them. And the best place for a baby to explore is outside. On a walk through the bush, in an inward-facing carrier, a baby can strengthen his neck muscles as he lifts his head to look at the light shining through the leaves. On the grass, learning to crawl, a baby is challenged by the natural uneven terrain. A piece of driftwood in the sand is a good place for an older baby to practice pulling herself up to standing. Even if she loses her balance, the sand provides a perfectly soft place to fall. It’s all connected, according to Paediatric Occupational Therapist Angela Hanscom, the natural world is not only a great place for babies to develop their physical skills but it also to aids the development of their senses. Being outside ‘engages all of their senses' she explained in a recent post 'setting them up for healthy sensory integration.’
So do we need to worry when we take our enthusiastic babies outside and they end up gnawing on a strip of bark or sampling a little mud? No, not according to Jack Gilbert PhD, the director of the Microbiome Centre at the University of Chicago. As well as a microbiologist Jack Gilbert is a Dad and the author of the book Dirt is good: The Advantage of Germs for your Child’s Developing Immune System.
According to Gilbert, our children spend too much time indoors, with too many sterilised surfaces and so their immune systems have become ‘hyper-sensitized.’ In an interview with NPR he explained it this way, ‘You have these little soldier cells in your body called neutrophils, and when they spend too long going around looking for something to do, they become grumpy and pro-inflammatory. And so when they finally see something that's foreign, like a piece of pollen, they become explosively inflammatory. They go crazy. That's what triggers asthma and eczema and often times, food allergies.’ His advice? Take your child outside—if they get their hands and feet in the dirt, if they end up with a mouthful of mud or sand—don’t sweat it. ‘Let them eat food off the floor, play in the soil, dirt is good!’ he says.
The Happiest Baby
I have photos of Phoebe as a baby—on a rug under a shady tree, dipping her toes in the waves at the beach and sitting up on our mulched garden beds watching the bees and butterflies in the lavender bushes—in all of them, she is smiling. It seemed to me that as a baby she was happiest, outside. I recently read an extract from Dr Harvey Kemps book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, in which he wrote that 'modern homes are both boring and overstimulating’ for young children. I thought this was quite profound.
In contrast, spending time outside is the ultimate restorative experience. We all feel calmer when we have had some fresh air and babies are no different. So if you have a little one, consider this my advice to you—take your baby outside.
I wish someone had told me.
The Baby Sleep Study, Liverpool John Moores University
Linda Åkeson McGurk : The site, the book.
Angela Hanscom: The post, the book.
Jack Gilbert PHD: The NPR article, the book.
Dr Harvey Kemp: The book.
Want more of the science behind getting outside with your kids? Have a look HERE.