Andreas Späth

Get your kids outside!

2016-05-30 15:07

Andreas Wilson-Späth

The 2015 South African Eco Film Festival featured a great documentary called Project Wild Thing, in which a father, David Bond, who is concerned about the amount of time his young children spend indoors and in front of electronic devices every day, appoints himself the ‘Marketing Director for Nature’. In comically British fashion, he explores a variety of techniques to entice kids into the big outdoors.

One of the outcomes of Bond’s endeavours is something called The Wild Network which aims to “re-wild childhood”, foster “Wild Time” (i.e. time spend outdoors) and free-range parenting that allows kids to “roam free, play wild and connect with nature”.

As a parent, I find the film and its associated organisation inspirational. As an environmentalist I consider their mission to be essential if we hope to collectively lift ourselves out of the myriad of ecological crises we’re faced with.

Surely children who are in touch with the natural world, appreciate its beauty and understand its importance are more likely to want to protect it as adults. And that’s much more liable to happen if they are given the chance to physically immerse themselves in it than if they only ever come across it on the Discovery Channel or as a cartoonish abstraction on their gaming consoles.

The evidence that kids are spending less and less play time outdoors is pretty overwhelming. A recent UK survey among 2000 parents with 5 to 12 year old children suggests that almost three quarters of the kids spend less than an hour playing outside on a daily basis. Even maximum security prisoners get more open-air time than that. Around 20 percent of the children don’t play outside at all on most days, while many get twice the exposure to TV and computer screens than to nature. Several international studies have reported similarly depressing results from elsewhere in the world.

Yet there are plenty of benefits to outdoor play even beyond acquiring an appreciation for nature. A three-year-long study involving 1900 Chinese six and seven year olds found that kids who spent an extra period outside every school day were significantly less likely to develop myopia (nearsightedness).

Last year, a team of Canadian researchers published a review paper that suggests that what they call “risky outdoor play” (i.e. things like running, jumping, climbing trees, exploring and general rough and tumble activities) is associated with improved physical health as well as better social skills, creativity and resilience.

The same group released a ‘Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play’ which concludes that “access to active play in nature and outdoors – with its risks – is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings – at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.”

By contrast, spending lots of time indoors and in front of screens tends to increase the risk of developing unhealthy eating habits and diseases like diabetes, certain types of cancer and heart disease.

All of which should make us get our kids to spend more time outdoors every day. Easier said than done. Unfortunately, many children do not have access to safe green spaces, especially those who live in urban areas and come from poor families.

Governments, as much as parents, have a major responsibility to improve this situation. The UK government has recently announced a new plan that aims to provide every school child in England with the opportunity to visit the country’s National Parks by bringing tens of thousands of youngsters there on excursions, including teaching materials in the curriculum, doubling the number of secondary school volunteers in National Parks and developing new apprenticeship opportunities in them.

With South Africa’s wealth of amazing nature reserves and National Parks, wouldn’t a similar programme present an exciting way of getting more of our own young people outdoors and in touch with their natural heritage?

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.



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