Experts recommend children spend 2-3 hours outside each day—here’s how you can make it happen each week for your kids
In 2010 when American Paediatricians met for their annual conference, there was something surprising about the keynote speaker.
He wasn’t a doctor.
Instead the person who spoke to the room of medical experts was journalist and author, Richard Louv.
What did doctors need to learn from a journalist?
He was there the argue that a global decline in childhood health—a rise in obesity, attention-deficit disorders and mental health issues—could in part be explained by a lack of connection to the natural world.
Louv’s message was initially published in 2005 in his best selling book Last Child in the Woods. And it’s a message that has reverberated across the globe.
In the decade since, professionals have embraced the idea that encouraging families to go outside and play, is key to promoting childhood health and wellbeing.
GP’s have started handing out prescriptions for green time. Government’s have funded organisations to promote nature play.
Early childhood educators, many of whom have long believed in the importance of connecting children to the natural world, now meet for conferences all over the world discussing nature pedagogy— an approach to learning that is grounded in the outdoor experience.
Even optometrists have joined the cause, as a result of Australian research that found time spent outdoors helped children’s eyes develop and could offer some protection to children from the increasingly common diagnoses of myopia.
Yet for parents, getting their children outside each day remains a challenge. Kids don’t congregate in the local street to play each afternoon any more. And it’s hard to find other parents who want to go to the park on a wet afternoon.
Many of today’s parents didn’t form a connection to the natural world in their own childhood. And even if they did, it’s hard to prioritise the time to get out daily. No matter where you, live society has shifted. We walk less and drive our cars more, we’re more likely to work indoors, and shop indoors too.
Which leaves many of us wondering if it’s even possible, to get our kids off screens and outside to play each day?
As a mum, I had felt this. It was that question that motivated me to set a goal for my family, in a project we called ‘Our Year Outdoors.’ The aim was to spend three hours outside a day, for a year and work out if it was possible.
To my surprise, it was. It wasn’t easy, but it was amazing. And now I’m passionate about sharing some of what I’ve learnt, getting our children outside has amazing benefits- and it only takes a few changes to make it happen.
Here’s some of the ways I make sure my kids get the recommended outdoor time each week, now that they are six and four.
I plan it. Even today, three years since our project, I still take the time to plan blocks of outdoor time in our week. A bike ride, a trip to the beach—these things go on the calendar and are treated like an appointment.
In the cooler months I use a weather app to check the forecast and plan activities when the weather is best, but regardless, writing it down makes it much more likely to happen.
I look for opportunities to swap indoor activities for outdoor ones. I’ve learnt there is a lot of things that can be done outside. We can buy groceries outside at our local farmer’s markets, we can cook dinner on a camp fire or on the BBQs at the local park, we can eat breakfast on the balcony.
Just last week I learnt that my local corner store is open late most nights. So I’ve committed to not driving to the shops, if I’m only grabbing a few things. Instead the kids get on their scooters and we walk.
We also don’t do it alone. We are part of a collective of families that meet outside each week. We’ve signed the kids up for outdoor co-curricular activities, things like nippers and soccer, that get us outside each weekend with others.
And during the holidays we make sure to invite a few friends to the park with us for a play. Having friends to share the outdoors with makes it more enjoyable for all of us.
We’re also careful with the things we buy for our kids. Having less inside has been a key to making outdoor play more appealing. We’ve simplified their toys to little more than lego, blocks, dolls, books and art supplies. And instead we’ve invested in good quality rain gear, beanies, bikes, scooters, buckets and spades.
And we’re careful about screen time. In the past I used to turn the TV on when the kids were getting too loud, arguing too much or being too wild, now I take those signs as a cue, to open the door and send them outside to play.
Last week it was to the sea, at 4 p.m. on a cold winter’s afternoon. Inside there had been tears, arguments and the stomping of four year old feet. Outside they collected shells and scrambled over grey rocks looking for treasure.
There’s a photo my husband took of the two of them in their thick winter jackets, lifting a wet log together, neither bothered by the temperature of the icy water or the darkening sky.
Looking at it reminds me of a quote from Louv’s book,
‘Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it.’