Too many kids spend their days sitting inside being kept entertained by screens, and the lack of outdoor time in early phases of childhood is damaging them. This has been dubbed ‘nature deficit disorder’ and can lead to increased risk of attention disorders, anxiety, and lack of creativity.
There are many studies explaining the benefits of being outdoors for children, especially when it comes to brain development. Executive function – sometimes known as the ‘CEO of the brain’, which helps us manage tasks, set goals and solve problems – is exercised when kids are allowed unstructured time outdoors. Creativity is an important part of executive function, helping kids to problem solve and entertain themselves using their imaginations. Exercising executive function in early years helps children starting school to focus, complete tasks or multitask, manage their emotions and follow directions (most of the time), so it is important to get them outside as early and as much as possible. On top of these benefits, being outdoors reduces stress and contributes to happier, more well-rounded kids and thus, sane parents.
These benefits not only affect the mind but the body as well. Exercising for at least an hour a day is necessary for muscle development and strong bones (as well as getting rid of their seemingly endless energy), and getting children outdoors encourages active play. Throw in a ball or a bike and they will be developing motor skills at the same time. Growing a garden with plants designed to engage each of the senses also helps children, especially younger children, understand the different senses and provide stimulation to the brain difficult to find indoors or impossible to find through a screen. An often-overlooked benefit of all this outdoor activity is sunshine. Vitamin D plays an important role in the functioning of the immune system and bone development, as well as improving our children’s mood – just don’t forget the sunblock!
Then there are the general skills we need for life that often go unconsidered in the research. Sending kids outside to play without structure or constant adult supervision (I’m looking at you, helicopter parents) helps them become more independent and confident in themselves. If there are other children involved, they have the chance to learn to share and interact with others, developing their social skills and making them more self-reliant. Outdoor play encourages children to take risks and test their limits, which may terrify parents, but this is the best way to let them push their boundaries and gain confidence, as well as understand risk assessment in the future.
Being outdoors is more important for this generation as a collective than any other, as it cultivates a respect for the environment and appreciation of nature that will be vital for the future of the planet. Understanding the wonders of the world we live in and appreciating the role different parts of nature play in sustaining our survival can help children expand their knowledge while developing empathy. A generation of kids who love the environment will be inspired to do whatever they can to save it, and it’s up to us to cultivate that love by getting them outside to discover these wonders for themselves.
Lead by example
As much as we hate to admit it, our children often inherit our habits and characteristics, both good and bad. The best way to encourage your children to get outside is to lead by example and show them how important it is. The benefits above apply to adults too, and you are likely to find that you will enjoy it just as much as they do.
Plant a veggie garden
There’s no better way to grow an appreciation for nature than by starting your own veggie garden and seeing the results of your hard work on the dinner table. Get your children involved in starting a family vegetable
garden by giving them kid-friendly plants to choose from, asking for help with planting and care, and even cooking your harvest together. Some great kid-friendly starter plants include lettuce, cherry tomatoes, nasturtiums and potatoes.
Go for a hike
Getting outdoors doesn’t have to be limited to your own backyard. The whole family can take in the surroundings and amazing views, while giving the kids a sense of accomplishment for their physical efforts.
Camp in your garden
Camping is the epitome of an outdoor family activity, but the planning and money involved tends to put people off. Setting up a tent in your garden and camping outdoors gets everyone outside and away from the screens without the extra hassle. Throw in a campfire for a braai and some marshmallows and you won’t even remember you’re at home.
Art and craft with nature
Some kids are more drawn towards indoor play with arts and crafts, but they can still enjoy the benefits of being outdoors, getting the best of both worlds. Many objects from nature can be used in arts and crafts projects, like pressed flowers, pinecones, rocks or crushed fruits like berries. Encourage arty kids to look to nature for their inspiration to cultivate creativity in both areas.
Learn from the best
If you’re struggling with ideas, there’s no harm in getting inspiration from the pros. At the Garden World Spring Festival in 2018, the garden ‘Rebirth of Happiness’, designed by Sonita Young, follows the international trends of using nature in early childhood education by creating a natural playground environment. The garden was landscaped and constructed by 3rd Teacher Nature Scapes, who are the first outdoor playscape design company in the country.
The space encourages learning through play and interaction with the natural environment, creating a place where kids can use their imaginations and spend hours discovering the different elements of the garden. The garden has so many areas to draw inspiration from when designing your own outdoor playground at home – the choice is yours. enjoy the benefits of being outdoors, getting the best of both worlds. Many objects from nature can be used in arts and crafts projects, like pressed flowers, pinecones, rocks or crushed fruits like berries. Encourage arty kids to look to nature for their inspiration to cultivate creativity in both areas.