Why kids need nature play to grow

Part of the Kinderling Conversation for parents. Weekdays 12pm-1pm.

Thu 22 September 2016

10 mins

We’re a pretty risk-averse society in general, and as parents and carers, it’s natural to worry about our young charges. We spend a lot of time watching them with eagle-eyes to make sure they don’t hurt themselves waving sticks around, jumping off rocks or climbing trees too high. But all this ‘carefulness’ comes at a price.

According to Nature Play SA, “our children spend less than two hours a day outside, one in four have never climbed a tree, one in three have never planted a garden and the area in which they can explore, has shrunk by 90%.”

Nature Play SA, Nature Play WA and Nature Play QLD are all working with families, schools and local councils to get rid of the “fantastic-plastic playgrounds” and transform them into natural play spaces with rocks, sand, trees and water.For our Screen Free Challenge we caught up with Sarah Sutter, CEO of Nature Play SA, who explains why nature play is important for your child’s physical, social and mental development both at home in the garden and in public playgrounds.

Look at the benefits first

Just to be clear, Sarah says you should never put your child in a hazardous situation. But before you tell them to stop what they’re doing, take a moment to evaluate the activity they’re engaged in.

Ask yourself, “What is the benefit of climbing a tree? How many skills is my child learning from that activity?” Then ask yourself honestly, “What is the biggest risk right now?”

Children assess challenges

Every child is different and has different development milestones, from vocabulary to toilet training, observes Sarah. In terms of tree climbing, Sarah’s tip is to give them the space to do so when they’re ready – don’t put them up a tree. “They will look at the challenge and work out how they’re going to do it, at their age ability,” says Sarah.

Learning risk

“If children don’t learn risk at an early age, how are they going to learn about it in years to come?” asks Sarah. Many activities in our daily lives involve risks, from riding a bike or skateboarding, to cooking and driving a car.

By experiencing risk early on, children learn how to develop responsible attitudes towards it.

Injury experience

For kids growing up before the 90s, scraped knees, scratches from tree branches, and maybe the odd broken bone from falling off the monkey bars all marked childhood.

Instead of trying to wrap our kids in cotton wool and preventing injuries at any cost, Nature Play SA suggests that as a society we need to think about them in a different way. “We say that these are learning injuries. You have to have a go - even as an adult – to find out what you can do,” says Sarah.

Resilience building

When we are constantly saying to kids “Stop! Be careful!” we’re giving them the message that things are really dangerous and they won’t be able to manage. By encouraging them to have a go, try again if they don’t make it the first time, and to pick themselves up after falling over, kids learn resilience.

Physical and social skills strengthen

By learning how to climb up, over and around different trees, rocks and logs, kids learn coordination and physical strength, as well as problem solving skills and creative thinking.

A lot of play is also social. Children playing together in the sand and building bridges with sticks learn important skills like sharing, negotiation and leadership, as well as imaginative and creative play.

Nature has a calming effect

Simply being in nature – playing in the grass, leaves, sand, rocks and trees – gives kids the space to be curious about their environment and to engage with it. North American studies have also found that green, outdoor settings can reduce hyperactivity and have a soothing effect on children.

What do your kids like about playing in nature? What’s their favourite nature activity? Making mud pies? Playing in the sand? Climbing a tree? We’d love to see your pics! Upload them with the hashtag #screenfreechallenge #kinderling If you need some nature play inspiration, head to Nature Play SA has some ideas.

Image: Jason Tyndall, Nature Play SA

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