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.