According To Science: Children Need to Go Out and Play

My husband called our nearly three-year-old son ‘feral’ the other day, and I couldn’t be prouder. Barefoot, wind-blown hair and sun-kissed cheeks, he whizzed down the hill from our caravan, stopping only to point out the bees buzzing in the foxgloves. I loved the sight of my tyke at play, running so free and wild.

There are times, though, when the tiger mum in me feels that I’m not doing enough. There are no early childhood classes, no baby music lessons, no genius-making sessions. Heck, it’s just the two of us on most days. So when it gets too much for him and myself, I tell him to go out and play.

Apparently, that’s the right thing to do. A growing body of studies worldwide tells us there is a need for children to reengage with the natural world.

Five young children playing together in a forest, low angle view

#1 Health benefits: Improved physical fitness

The most obvious benefit for a child who indulges in outdoor play is better health. Anyone who has let her child loose in a park will see the range of physical tasks they’re capable of in such a short time. Let’s face it, from all that chasing around we parents do, going outdoors is good for us too.

If a child is introduced to regular outdoor play, there is clear evidence to show that he will continue to love the natural environment well into his adulthood. This provides the foundation for a healthy lifestyle in later years. A 2009 study by the University of Essex titled ‘Nature, Childhood, Heath and Life Pathways’ showed that where children are ‘free-range’ and exposed to the natural world, as adults, their lifespan increases; where they are kept indoors and have little or no connection with nature, they die earlier.

These key findings in the National Childhood Report published by the UK-based National Trust show some current behavioural trends:

  • less than 10% of British children play in wild places compared with 40% of adults when they were young.
  • kids spend more than 17 hours a week watching TV; that’s about two and half hours a day, every day of the year.
  • 11 to 15-year-olds spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen: 7.5 hours a day, an increase of 40% in a decade.

Although those particular statistics apply to children in Britain, the rise in screen time is a worldwide phenomenon. Closer to home, the Nutrition Society of Malaysia published a recent report revealing Malaysian children as the fattest in Asia. The figures are scary: almost 30% of children aged between six and 17 are overweight or obese, while 7% of those under five are overweight. The leading factors are poor nutrition and inactivity, likely to be the result of a decline in outdoor pursuits, providing more evidence of the increasing need to engage with nature.

 

#2 Education benefits: Children learn more with outdoor play

Greater contact with nature improves the way children learn, both formally and informally. The Ofsted study ‘Learning outside the classroom’ quoted by the National Trust report states that outdoor learning gives children direct experience of the subject. This makes learning more interesting and enhances their understanding. Child psychologist Aric Sigman has a name for regular exposure to nature- the ‘countryside effect’, which leads to higher concentration and self-discipline; improved awareness, reasoning and observational skills; better reading, writing, maths, science and social skills, and improved behaviour overall.

Asian Chinese Little Girl Exploring With Magnifying Glass at outdoor park.

#3 Children learn differently 

Expanding on #2, children don’t simply learn more or learn better outdoors, they also absorb knowledge in different ways.  In a report by the National Foundation for Educational Research titled ‘Engaging and Learning with the Outdoors’, children are said to benefit in four specific ways: Cognitive Impacts (greater knowledge and understanding); Affective Impacts (attitudes, values, beliefs and self-perceptions); Interpersonal and Social Impacts (communication skills, leadership and teamwork); and Physical and Behavioural Impacts (fitness, personal behaviours and social actions). In short, children who go out and play learn and understand more, feel and behave better, are more cooperative, and are physically healthier.

 

#4 A greater sense of self-worth

Exposure to the natural environment reduces stress and aggressive behaviour in all children. It also gives them a greater sense of self-worth. A 2011 National Trust survey  revealed that 80% of the happiest people in the UK said they have a strong connection with the natural world, compared with less than 40% of the unhappiest. What’s important to note is that exposure to nature can also come in small doses. Five minutes of ‘green exercise’ daily can still help to do wonders for a child’s mood and self-esteem.

Part of this has to do with how nature (unpredictable, and offering an infinite number of possibilities) has the effect of developing a child’s attitudes to risk. Going out into the outdoors, even trying out the new monkey bars in a playground involves an element of risk. Stephen Moss, the author of the National Trust report cites climbing trees as an example: it may be easy to climb up a tree, but when he needs to come down, the child will soon realise that getting down is trickier. The experience teaches them an important lesson about their own limits and the risks they are prepared to take. With regular exposure to the possibilities that the outdoors offers, a child will soon benefit from better self-esteem and confidence.

Portrait of happy Asian boy climbing tree in the park

The Last Word

The case is strong for outdoor play. The positive impact on our child’s physical and mental health is well-supported by research. This is where we – parents, corporations and governments – come in. We need to demand for more public green areas and play spaces that are thoughtfully designed and with natural elements. As mums and dads, we need to be more proactive.

So parents – take a deep breath and let your children go out and play. Tell them to go feral, because the science says it’s good.

 

By Evangeline Majawat

Evangeline Majawat is a former reporter and public relations executive. She left Malaysia to put down roots in the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands. Nowadays she teaches yoga and has her hands full with her little boy.

 

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Need ideas for outdoor spaces or where to take your child? See: Outdoor Spaces and Activities for Toddlers in Klang ValleyBest Outdoor Playgrounds and KL’s Best Parks for Families.

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