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.
Earlier this month our family took an overnight trip in my parent’s faded, thirty-year-old pop top caravan. We arrived at the lake where we were to stay in the afternoon and although it was mid-July the weather was unseasonably warm. While Nick and I set up the caravan the kids played happily together, finding sticks and an old piece of rope and making their own fun. We finally managed to get the caravan up just as the sun was setting and before some friends joined us for a BBQ dinner and an open fire. Our friends also have a little boy who Ezra and Phoebe love to play with. Not long after they arrived the two boys, aged two and three, started playing a game. In their play, they were firefighters who were fighting bush fires together. However, instead of traditional fire trucks, they decided to use horses, 'fire horses'. The boys spent over two hours engaged in this play scenario. During this time they chased each other around the camp, rolled down a hill —to search for and rescue children who might have been stuck— and galloped in between the trees shouting happily to each other, while we parents sat around eating our meal under the stars. The kids stopped briefly to eat their sausages, but apart from that they spent the entire night running wild together.
I am no longer surprised by the sheer amount that my children move when they are outdoors. Early on in our project, I remember being impressed with their endurance and their ability to run and jump for hours, but these days I have come to expect it. I now understand that for my children movement flows out from their very nature. Movement is a language for my children. They use it to engage with the world around them— a puddle is jumped in, a paddock is run across, sand is dug in. They use the same language to communicate with others. When they greet their friends it is often without words, instead, they simply race off together to find something to do or somewhere to explore.
It turns out this movement, this activity, is fundamental to young children’s health and development. Higher levels of physical activity in preschool-aged children have been associated with a range of health benefits. This has prompted the Australian Government to release guidelines for the amount of physical activity young children should have every day. These guidelines, for children aged 1 to 5 recommend three hours of physical activity (spread throughout the day) and less than one hour of screen time (no screen time for children aged under 2).
Many children, however, are getting far less than what is recommended, especially those living in urban areas. A 2001 study of over a thousand preschoolers living in Melbourne found that less than 1% met the activity levels and screen time recommendations set by the government. Instead, children on average spent only 127 minutes engaged in physical activity and 113 minutes on screens.
So, why is movement so important? And what are the implications for those children who aren't moving enough?
Childhood health is in crisis. According to the World Health Organisation, childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. In Australia, 1 in 4 children is overweight or obese. Which increases the child’s risk of a wide range of short term and long term illnesses. And obesity in childhood is a growing problem.
Of course, this problem is closely linked with the intensive marketing and increased consumption of cheap, highly processed and nutritionally deficient foods, but, inactivity in childhood also plays a significant part. A recent study found that young children who spent just one hour watching television every day were 60% more likely to be overweight in kindergarten than those who didn't. Even children in a healthy weight range are at risk of health complications if they engage in too little physical activity. This is because they a likely to carry a higher ratio of fat to muscle. Young children don’t need to attend exercise classes, they simply need lots of time to engage in active free play. The best place for that play is outdoors where they have plenty of room to move.
Growth and Development
Movement for children is not only about burning adequate calories. The way young children move outdoors helps them to develop their gross and fine motor skills. A lack of adequate movement interferes with this process.
In previous generations, it was expected that the majority of children could hold a pencil when they started kindergarten. However, today there is a dramatic increase in the number of children who need support or therapy to help with this seemly simple task. Why?
In order for children to develop the small muscles that help them to hold a pencil or cut with scissors, children must first develop the large muscles in their abdomen, shoulders and back. They strengthen these large muscles through activities such as running, jumping, riding bikes and climbing trees. Because today’s children are spending less time playing outdoors, many more children are turning up to Kindergarten essentially underdeveloped.
Children who play outdoors regularly are constantly exposed to activities that benefit their growing bodies. Racing up a hill, jumping off a rock or digging in the mud all challenge and strengthen a child’s muscles and joints and these kinds of experiences are essential for healthy development.
Movement Enhances Creative Play
When you watch children playing outdoors it is clear that movement enhances creative play. When the boys were playing horseback fireman their movements— galloping and rolling— was, if you like, the medium they used to create their play. In all those hours they used no props or tools, no toys or built playground structures. They simply told their story with their movements. The outdoors provides for such a great range of physical movement and these movements open up all sorts of possibilities for play. Phoebe, climbs on top of a rock and calls herself a queen and shouts orders to the other— often taller— children, who now stand below her. Ezra climbs onto a log, which becomes his ship, and now the ground around it must not be walked on but swam across (quickly, of course as there are always sharks). Research tells us that physical activity has a positive effect on children’s cognitive function, including their executive functioning, which is what they use to sustain play. All that moving and playing outdoors is developing children's brains and enhancing the way they learn both now and in the future.
For young children movement is fundamental to who they are and how they interact with the world. Playing outdoors regularly is the best way for children to get the kind of movement that will keep them healthy and support the development of their bodies and brains.
Want more of the science behind getting outside with your kids? Have a look HERE.