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.