I don’t know about you, but most of my childhood memories revolve around outdoor activities and adventures. We lived on the edge of a small rural village beside a forest and once we came home from school and our homework was done we went out the door to meet up with friends in the street to play games such as hopscotch and ballgames, or we’d just ride our scooters and bikes. We’d head off to the stream to construct dams or build little rafts and let them sail away, collect frog spawn in the springtime and have a cooling splash around in the summer. We had many “secret” hiding places in the woods, we’d sneak out treats to have picnics in our treehouses and dens and go on imaginary adventures as pirates, cowboys or fairies. In the winter-time we often had snow for weeks on end and I still remember the tingling feeling of numb hands, feet and noses when we’d come back into the warm house after hours spent in sub-zero temperatures building snowmen and igloos. Whatever the weather we’d find something to do outdoors, even if it was building a shelter to hide from the pouring rain, the more muck and mess, the better!! As my PE teacher in school used to say: “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.” We did have a television but we were only allowed to watch “Sesame Street” after our dinner and then we’d fall into bed happily exhausted.
Unfortunately, due to multiple circumstances children seem to spend less and less time outside. Richard Louv, the author of “Last child in the Woods” calls this modern-day occurrence “Nature-Deficit-Disorder”, a term which he points out is not an actual medical diagnosis. Schooldays are very long and especially in the winter there is barely any daylight left once homework is done. Living environments and conditions have changed considerably in the past 30-40 years, traffic has increased hugely and parenting is very different in comparison to how many of us parents and educators were brought up. Children don’t seem to get as much opportunity to play and “socialise” independently anymore, meeting friends is usually organised and supervised in “play dates” rather than children arranging their own meet-up. Times have changed and there is nothing we can do about that, but we still have to make sure that our children can spend time outdoors as much as possible. It is vital for their physical and emotional development and well-being and it can actually be detrimental to children’s health if they don’t get enough outdoor time and experiences.
Outdoor activities ensure that children are physically active and their immune systems are strengthened by encountering myriads of microorganisms and trace amounts of pathogens. Safe exposure to the sun encourages Vitamin D production and it is scientifically proven that natural daylight is essential to prevent short sightedness to name just a few health benefits. Herbert Renz-Polster, a paediatrician and scientist, and Gerald Huether, a professor for neurobiology, speak right from my heart, when they say, that for children and their development nature is not “optional”, it’s as essential as a healthy diet for growing up. Only in nature and the outdoors do they encounter all four non-negotiable sources for their development: freedom, immediacy, resistance and relatedness (connection).
One of the biggest challenges of our time in my opinion is the dis-connect many of us and our children are experiencing and growing up with. As touched on in another blog entry children, teenagers (and adults) spent too much time in a virtual reality. From too young an age children become aware of frightening and overwhelming global occurrences such as natural disasters and the severe environmental threats to our planet. In stark contrast to the exposure to this information children don’t have enough first-hand experiences with the natural habitats that surround them. Nature and the outdoors give us invaluable opportunities to re-connect, to experience what we’re all part of first hand, and to feel ourselves as an important piece of this jigsaw that is our planet. Children need to learn that everything on this earth is connected, that we can influence our surrounds and that we are affected by them in return. We get the feeling that we “belong” here.
On a more basic and child centred level: Children should get the opportunity to get messy, to explore nature, to fuel their imagination with the endless opportunities of the outdoors. Too often have I encountered teachers and parents in the past that said: We can’t go outside today it’s too cold, or too wet! If we waited for sunny and warm days in Ireland for children to get the chance to spend time outside we’d be in big trouble!! There is brilliant and affordable outdoor attire available from stores like Lidl or Aldi; there is a reason why wellies were invented!! When dressed appropriately children can play outside despite rain or cold temperatures. In Scandinavia it is common use to wrap up babies and toddlers, and leave them outside in sub-zero temperatures for their midday naps. According to research by Marjo Tourula of the University of Oulu, Finland for example, napping in sub-zero temperatures not only promotes better daytime sleeping, it also seems to increase the duration of sleep. It’s also believed that the fresh clean air promotes health and combats winter sickness. Even if we don’t go as far as this, it’s just an example that children are safe outdoors when dressed appropriately, even in the rain or snow.
Children love being and playing outside, the messier the better. There is nothing more exciting than wading through water, climbing trees, having picnics in the forest, building dens and tree houses, collecting pebbles and seashells at the beach or building igloos in the snow. We need to be able to afford our children these basic experiences for their own health and happiness. There is no place like nature to let children’s imagination run wild – literally!
For more information on mindful parenting and education and a practical everyday approach that can be applied by anybody and tailored to your individual circumstances take a look at my new book “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a revolution”, a handbook for parents and educators to promote positive change based on the principles of mindfulness.
Thanks so much for your interest and support! 😉 Alex
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