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.
In May 2016 our family set three goals to help us get outside more often. You can read about Our Year
When our project was over in 2017 we still went outside to play most days and spent many more hours outdoors than we would have before. But I did miss having goals, having something to work towards.
In the last few weeks, a few of you have shared your ideas of how you are going to get out more in 2018. And you have inspired me. So here are my New Year's resolutions…
1. Play outside every day. This year I am not going to make my kids go out for three hours each day, but I do want to make sure we still head out daily.
2. Spend one day in the mountains or at the beach each month.
3. Spend one week, sleeping under the stars.
4. Become self-sufficient in green things. I want to learn how to grow a consistent source of spinach and salad greens for my little family. I would also love to give growing sprouts a go with the kids. Have you ever tried it?
5. Shop the seasons. You loved this post about how we shop outside. So, this year I am going to keep working on eating seasonally and hopefully share some of my favourite easy kid-friendly and affordable farmers market recipes.
Ok, there are my five goals for 2018. Now it’s your turn. Some of you have already shared your plans, which I have loved reading. If you haven't yet, let me know what your goals are. I will be sharing some of your ideas in the next few weeks. Here’s to a bright and green 2018.
Want more stories of getting outside with kids? Have a look HERE.
‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’ so goes the Swedish saying. And there is a lot of truth to it. If you want your kids to play outside year round they will need the right gear. Hats, sunglasses, rash-shirts, raincoats, gumboots, mud-suits, woollen tights, knitted jumpers, wind jackets and gloves all make good gifts for outdoor kids. We love these boots from Bisgaard, they keep your feet dry and are also good to run and jump in.
2. A Ball
Children of all ages love playing ball—and most adults do too. Our favourite balls are from Jinta Sports. And are made in fair-trade factories in Pakistan and India.
We bought our daughter a Micro scooter when she was two and she loves it. And our five year old still rides his balance bike daily, even though he now has a bigger bike as well. A set of wheels can be expensive but they are well worth it, and thankfully there are lots around for sale second hand. Don’t you love the look of this bamboo balance bike from Kinderfeets?
A few quality tools will provide endless fun in the backyard, at the park or at the beach. Buckets, spades, shovels and watering cans are a great place to start. If possible choose items made of metal, like this Oxfam one, or wood because they tend to last longer. You can buy kid’s tools from hardware stores but it’s also worth having a look at your local op shop too, because old pots, spoons, sieves and cake tins are pretty perfect for making mud pies.
5. Gardening Kits
There is something special about growing your own. And thankfully it’s easy to do. A packet of seeds inside a Christmas card (like this one) makes a beautiful gift. Silver-beet, sunflowers, nasturtiums and snow peas are all good seeds for kids. You can also buy some great gardening kits. Planet Eco have kits for vegetables, flowers and herbs. And LifeCykel sells mushroom kits that will grow on your kitchen bench, straight from the box, just add water.
There are lots of beautiful books for kids about the natural world. We love Florette, There is a Tribe of Kids, Isabella’s Garden and Kissed by the Moon. And you can't go past the beautiful illustrations in this nonfiction book Curios Tree: Natural World: A Visual Compendium of Wonders from Nature.
7. A Plant
A plant is the perfect present for the kid that has everything. And it's the best eco gift around. Instead of consuming resources, it creates them. Instead of emitting greenhouse gases, it absorbs them. If the child you are buying for has the space for it, a fruit tree can be a gift that keeps on giving. But plants are also great for kids who live in apartments. An indoor plant will improve the air quality in a child’s room—and will look pretty cool while doing it.
And then there are these organic pjs… because we are pretty sure that outdoor kids end up spending more time in bed.
Note: We know how hard it can be choosing Christmas gifts for kids. We wanted to help you with some ideas. These are just products we like, there is a whole range of others out there—and we haven't been paid or sponsored by any of the above brands.
When you live in the city it can feel hard to get outside with your kids. And if you feel like you aren’t getting enough green time—you are not alone. Surveys show that city kids really do spend less time outdoors than those who live in the country. But regardless of where you live, all children benefit from time outdoors. And you don’t have to miss out on all the benefits of outdoor play just because you live in town. Here are my tips:
1. Go to the green
Most cities have green spaces. Australian cities have lots. Find your local park, reserve, botanic gardens or beach and go enjoy them. Pack a picnic, call a friend, anything to get outside together. In the city there are lots of great playgrounds you can visit. But don’t be afraid to leave the playground and explore the green spaces around them. You might just find the perfect tree to climb or grassy hill to roll down.
2. Find your garden
Just because you live in an apartment and don’t have a garden, doesn’t mean you have to miss out on all the fun of growing your own. You can get your hands in the dirt at your local community garden. Even if you aren’t ready to sign up, most community gardens are open to the public and members are happy for you to stroll through and have a look. They are great places to spot a bee, beetle, or butterfly.
3. Borrow a backyard
You might not have a backyard but I bet you know someone who does. Make a phone call then go and visit them for a play. Tell Grandma and Pa that instead of another toy for your tiny apartment, you’d like them to buy a kid’s wheelbarrow and some shovels—for their place. Who knows, they might even let you turn that back corner into a digging pit or mud kitchen.
4. Swap your shop
One of the best changes we made when we spent a year outdoors was to stop buying groceries at the supermarket and start shopping at our local farmers market. The kids loved playing at the markets and splashing in the puddles when it was raining. And getting out of the house first thing Saturday morning was a great way to start the weekend.
5. Use your feet
One of the best things about living in town is that you drive less. So go out and enjoy the beautiful walking tracks your city has to offer. Buy your kids a scooter or balance bike—you can find them second hand, for almost nothing—and hit the path. It will do you and your kids, the world of good.
6. Get out of town
Cities are great places to live, full of vibrant communities, bustling markets, and parks with acres of lawn that you never have to mow. But sometimes it’s nice to escape. So book a holiday by the sea or spend a weekend camping in the bush. Even if you only have time for a day trip, getting out of town and playing in nature is good for the whole family.
You might also like these articles: 10 tips to help you get outdoors with your kids more often and Is a outdoor childhood still an option?
In 2007 the Oxford English dictionary removed 50 nature related words from their junior publication. The list of deleted words included dandelion, conker, clover, heron, nectar, fern and willow. In their place, new words were added, words like blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste and voicemail.
The change was controversial. In the UK, a group of authors penned a joint letter urging the publishers to reconsider. But the publishers defended the purge. The decision, they argued, was based on comprehensive surveys of the words children use most in daily life. And they were not wrong.
All over the world children are spending less time outside. Surveys by Planet Ark report that only 35% of Australian children play outside every day. As a result, Australian children are some of the least active in the world. One-third of preschoolers have their own tablet or smartphone and infants are spending—on average—two hours a day in front of screens. Which leaves little time for digging in the mud or climbing a tree.
And yet, many of us feel uneasy about the disappearance of nature from our children’s lives. My husband and I certainly did. In 2016, we began to wonder if there was a way to change things. We wanted to know if it was still possible to give our children a nature-rich childhood. On the 1st May 2016, we came up with a plan that we hoped would do just that. We decided to take our children outside for three hours every day for a year.
Almost immediately we were surprised at how happy our kids were outside. They loved going out. They played together, they climbed trees with low branches, they rode their trikes in the street. When it was raining, they splashed and jumped in puddles.
Outside they moved their bodies constantly. We noticed them get stronger, more competent and confident. In the afternoons, after being outside all day, they were tired and calm. They would sit still at the table and eat their dinner, without complaining. Then they would go to bed happily—sometimes falling asleep on my lap during the last story.
I started to notice they didn't argue outside. One day we met some friends at a playground built in a patch of remnant bushland. In the group, there were at least nine children—ranging in ages from six months to six years. The weather was perfect, so we stayed all day. The parents sat on a wooden picnic table chatting while the kids raced up and down, underneath the giant Blackbutt trees. When we got in the car to drive home I realised there hadn't been a single argument all day. I tried to remember the last argument my children had had, with any other child—I couldn’t.
By Christmas, our lives had completely changed. When the toy-catalogues arrived in the mail, I tossed them straight in the bin. I knew that outside, my children played more creatively and collaboratively. I knew that sand, sticks and pebbles were better than any plastic toy. We gave the kids a new bike and some books and I avoided the shopping centres. We decorated the house with pine cones and silver-grey eucalyptus branches. The holiday season seemed calmer. We all felt less stressed, more connected and grounded.
Our goal was to spend three hours outside every day. And—apart from a handful of days of sickness or interstate travel—we did it. In total, between May 2016 and April 2017, we spent close to 2000 hours outside.
The problem with a childhood light on conkers, ferns and herons is that it is a childhood of disconnection. Many of the activities that now fill a child’s days are solitary and sedentary. And the move indoors is associated with a decline in health and well-being. Today 1 in 4 children is overweight. Depression and anxiety are increasingly diagnosed in childhood. And it is thought that today’s generation of children will be the first who don’t outlive their parents.
At the beginning of Our Year Outdoors, our children didn’t know the names of the birds on their roof or the flowers that grew through the cracks of their pavement. They also didn’t know the names of the other children who lived across the street. But things have changed.
Our Year Outdoors has taught us that, a nature-rich life is still possible. And that the simple act of stepping outside—can change everything.
Want more stories of getting outside with 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.
What are the fondest memories of your childhood?
For many of us we have many memories of climbing trees and playing for hours in the sun, creating our own games and running wild without too much input from our parents.
But life is different for children today. All around the world children are spending less time playing outdoors and more time inside. In Australia most children are not playing outdoors everyday and 1 in 10 children play outside less than once per week.
It is an alarming trend. However we have the power to change this reality for our own children or the children in our lives. If we can work to fit more outdoor time in, even just a little bit, then our children stand to benefit in many ways. Heading outdoors regularly can have a wide range of positive effects on our children's health and wellbeing. So, having taken my own children out everyday for the past two months, here are my top 10 tips for getting outdoors more often...
At the beginning of the week, when you sit down to write on your calendar, make an appointment with nature. Putting it in the diary is a great way to ensure you have at least one great outdoor experience every week.
2. Don't let the weather stop you.
In Scandinavian countries where a large percentage of children attend forest kindergartens, they have a saying, ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.’ As parents we perhaps don’t always feel like getting cold and wet or washing all those muddy clothes, but children feel differently.
3. Kick the kids out.
Mud play is no fun when it includes mud trudged through a clean house. Or when you give over a corner of your backyard to create a kind of mud wonderland and after ten minutes the kids say they are bored and want to go back inside. So take snacks and water out and then explain that you aren’t going back inside for a certain block of time. Often my kids will ask to go back inside within the first half an hour. I simply tell them that we have to stay outside for a whole hour. Then they will start some creative play and after two or three hours I will be the one telling them to come back inside.
4. Take inside activities outside.
Instead of eating sandwiches and fruit at the table, wrap them up in a tea towel and have a picnic outside. Little babies love to have their tummy time on a rug outdoors. Older children might like taking their pencils outside and finding inspiration in the flowers, birds or trees. Even dress ups, dolls and doctors kits can be taken outside for an afternoon. Pretend play is much more fun with a bit of green grass to romp around on.
5. Meet your friends outdoors.
Children love being in nature with others, so call up your friends and head outdoors together. A grassy hill, a pile of sticks or a patch of dirt is transformed when there is a friend there to play with.
6. Use outdoor time as downtime.
When children are tired, especially after school, we can fall into the trap of thinking that screens are a good way to give them a rest. However occupational therapist, Angela Hanscom, explains that sitting still in front of a moving screen can actually be stressful for children. While watching a screen, children's brains are being stimulated but they are not experiencing movement, the normal reaction to that stimulation. She explains that this is why children sometimes become grumpy after watching too much television. Since starting our project we have stopped turning the television on for our three year old after preschool. Instead he heads into the backyard and rides his bike. Or we take him to the park around the corner for an hour. At first it felt counter intuitive to send him outdoors to be active when I could see how tired he was from his day, however it works to relax him more than the television ever did.
7. Prepare your kit.
I keep raincoats, all our gumboots and our picnic rug in a box by the door. In the back of my car lives our bucket and spades, a few towels and some spare clothes. This way we are always ready to stop and play outdoors if we ever have a free moment. If you live in the city and don’t have a backyard, carrying a little kit (maybe a rug, a ball or a small bucket and spade) means you can make the most of your local green space whenever you head out.
8. Set a family goal.
Setting yourself a goal helps you to take the kids outdoors even when you may be inclined to do otherwise. Last week, for example, it was wet and cold and the sun was quickly setting, but because of our project we decided to put on our coats and go for a walk. The kids loved squelching in the wet grass, saying goodnight to the birds and watching the darkening sky. It was a lovely moment of family bonding, that we would have missed had we stayed indoors.
Swap some of your driving trips for walking and enjoy the time to be outdoors together. If you have school age children and are in the habit of driving them to school try, even just once a week, to walk. Recent studies have shown that it will help them to concentrate better once they are in class.
10. Do less inside activities.
,Is your week already filled with music classes, playgroups, swimming lessons or trips to indoor play centres? Sometimes you just have to say no and do less. Save your money and take them outdoors instead.
And as an extra tip... just try and slow down a little bit.
Children love being outdoors. Young children especially, are instantly drawn to the experiences and materials that they find in nature. This means our children will find a place to climb anywhere we go, they will want to jump in every puddle and stop to admire every other stick. As a parent it is sometimes easy to see this behaviour as frustrating and as slowing us down.
However when we look at these moments in the bigger picture we can see that for our children they are significant. In these moments children are investigating, they are learning about the world they live in and also about themselves. They are testing and refining their physical skills and engaging their creative minds to dream and imagine. And they are forming a connection to the natural world, a connection that will go with them throughout their lives. Fostering that connection is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.
'For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.'
Want more tips on getting outside with your kids? Have a look HERE.