Take it outside
More children can identify a Dalek than an owl; the distance our kids stray from home on their own has shrunk by 90% since the 70s; 43% of adults think a child shouldn’t play outdoors unsupervised until the age of 14. More children are now admitted to British hospitals for injuries incurred falling out of bed than falling out of trees. Our children spend less time in, and know less about, the natural world than any generation in history.
Does it matter? We’re increasingly divorced from the natural world as a society, so is it really a problem if our children can’t tell catkins from cow parsley, or know not to run through the nettle patch (or to look for a dock leaf if they do)?
I think it does matter.
There’s a growing body of evidence that it’s not so much what children know about nature, as what happens to them when they are in nature that’s important. Researchers in all sort of disciplines – doctors, mental health experts, educationalists, sociologists – are beginning to suspect that when kids stop going out into the natural world to play, it affects not just their development as individuals, but society as a whole.
Richard Louv, author of the bestseller Last Child in the Woods, calls it “nature deficit disorder”. He cites a lengthening list of scientific studies indicating that time spent in free play in the natural world has a huge impact on health.
Obesity is perhaps the most visible symptom of the lack of outdoors play, but dozens of studies from around the world show regular time outdoors produces significant improvements in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning ability, creativity and mental, psychological and emotional wellbeing.
Just five minutes’ outdoor play can produce rapid improvements in mental wellbeing and self-esteem, most markedly in the young, according to a study at the University of Essex. Free and unstructured play in the outdoors boosts problem-solving skills, focus and self-discipline. Socially, it improves cooperation, flexibility, and self-awareness. Emotional benefits include reduced aggression and increased happiness.
The world is now divided into two camps, separated by whether you were born before about 1970, or after. Ask anyone over 40 to recount their most treasured memories of childhood play, and I bet they talk about what they did outdoors. I bet there won’t be any grownups in the story either, until the triumphant (or disastrous) ending. As things stand, today’s children will be unlikely to treasure memories like that: just 21% of today’s kids regularly play outside, compared with 71% of their parents.
It’s something parents have the power to address – whether you are thinking about whether to let your children go out to play in the woods, or deciding what they’ll do over the weekend, or the holidays, your willingness to let them experience the outdoors on their own terms will impact on more than just how dirty their jeans get. Their health, and our society’s may be at stake.
Take it outside