As we celebrate Children’s Week, it’s an ideal time to reflect on the importance of play in our children’s lives. Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says children have the right to play and rest. I like this statement – it’s perfectly formed in its simplicity. Not only is play a child’s global right, but it’s also essential to a child’s intellectual growth, social development plus their physical and psychological well-being. I fear, however, that for some children the definition of play may now be described as an hour watching YouTube videos, or a chaperoned walk to a couple of swings at the local park.
My fear is unfortunately confirmed by numerous worldwide studies including one Australian research study. The study found that in just one generation, children’s outdoor play had dropped from 73 percent to just 13 percent of total play time. Our inactive indoor lifestyles have not only increased obesity rates and caused untold problems associated with excessive screen-time. But has also added to a growing disconnect between children and their natural world. According to some researchers, children who are exposed to free play in nature before the age of 12 are more likely to have a lifelong fascination, care, and respect for the environment. Those that don’t, run the risk of developing what one US author terms “nature-deficit disorder”. The term he coined to describe the loss of the natural emotional affiliation we as humans have with nature that enables us to survive.
So where does nature fit into the play equation? There is a growing mountain of research showing exposure to nature is associated with a range of health benefits to children. These include improved reasoning function, increased creativity, better relationships with adults, reduced ADHD symptoms and reduced rates of aggression. And now the “nature play” movement is gaining momentum worldwide, including Australia. Nature play is defined as: “any activity that gets children active or thinking actively outdoors. Its end goal is of building skills and the ability to play without the need for parental or adult control”. So, what does that look like? Allowing kids to get dirty, climb, jump, create, splash and explore without a hovering parent or teacher limiting or controlling their actions. Letting kids, be kids, in nature.
This weekend to celebrate Children’s Week and your child’s fundamental human right to play, why not get them playing in nature? Visit one of our many national parks for the day and let them roam, discover, get dirty and create. Why not consider a weekend farm-stay or a longer farm-stay break during the next school holidays, rather than a packaged trip to Bali?
Making some simple and conscious decisions about when, where and how your children play today, has the potential to have a profound effect on their future, and the future of their children and generations to come.