Guest post by Sophie Whitworth | @sophieawhitworth
Today we have the lovely Sophie sharing all about Independent outdoor play and why it is so beneficial for your child’s development, as well as different ways to encourage outdoor play
I have always loved spending time outside; I remember spending endless Summer days riding my bike around the local area with friends that lived on my road and family camping trips. As a teenager, when all of my school friends were getting weekend jobs in clothes shops and cafes, I was knee deep in Horse muck earning my money mucking out stables and teaching young children to ride Ponies. When I met my Husband, at University, we spent much of our holidays travelling and exploring the outdoors, from hiking in the Lake District to climbing Mount Kinbalu in Borneo. I always knew that when I had children, I wanted them to love being outdoors as much as me, but I never really thought about how important it might be for their development.
I have three children, aged 8, 7 and 3 and love nothing more than sitting back and watching them together enjoying independent outdoor play, away from adult intervention. However; it hasn’t always been like this and when I had my first daughter 8 years ago, I was very anxious. Yes, I took her outside for walks in her pram and of course as she got older, I took her to the play park and to farm parks etc, but I don’t think I was ever intentional about the time we spent outdoors. It wasn’t until sometime during the first period of lock down here in the UK that I realised how much time we spend all together as a family and that other than when the children are at school, we were pretty much all together all of the time. I realised, also that we had fallen out of the habit of spending a lot of our time outdoors-Yes, I know we were in a lock down and not allowed out much at that time, but I think this is what made me start reflecting on our lives. Any time my children were spending outside was either as part of an organised sports team or with me hovering around. I thought back to my childhood in the 90’s and about how much time me and my siblings and friends spent playing outdoors, away from our parents and I decided that this is what I wanted for my children too. I began to read around the subject and this is what I discovered.
During recent years we, as humans, have suffered from a disconnect from the natural world; in modern, industrial societies 90% of peoples time is spent indoors. However, our ancestors were deeply connected to their environments; relying on them for needs such as food, shelter and clothing. Since starting to domesticate and cultivate nature our societies have become increasingly urbanised and disconnected, with 77% of people now living in urban areas where they aren’t reliant on the ecosystem around them for their daily needs. Research suggests that a disconnection from nature is linked to both mental and physical health disorders such as; anxiety, depression, heart disease, fatigue and lowered life expectancy. Worryingly, Nature Deficit Disorder is now a recognised condition in children and has been shown to be a contributor to conditions such as; obesity, depression, ADHD and lowered cognitive ability. Having a child, myself, who finds it difficult to concentrate and struggles with anxiety, this really piqued my interest. Could spending more time outside, connecting with our surroundings help my daughter?
Through my reading I have discovered many developmental benefits for children who spend time engaged in outdoor, free play. Unlike the indoor environment, where there are always rules that need to be followed, even when playing independently, the outdoors offers almost limitless potential for children to relax their minds. A place where they can design, create and explore or just be quiet, calm and still. Many studies have shown that when children have free play opportunities outdoors, they become better at problem solving. The outdoors is, by its very nature, unpredictable and children will come across things that are unexpected whilst out playing; forcing them to constantly assess their environment and evaluate their risk. By spending time learning how to navigate the changing terrains of the natural environment children become more confident and competent, they develop strength and resilience.
Nature and being outdoors are calming for children, they offer respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and give them a chance unwind and recharge. The colours that are found out in nature are often more subtle and gentle, compared to those found in the classroom, for instance; in this way they do not overstimulate Children.
“Simply looking at nature, calms children.”
– Angela Hanscom
Here are some suggestions that I have put together to help encourage your children (and you) with getting outside.
Pick Your Own
Many farms and garden centres now offer a Pick Your Own experience, from a Pumpkin Patch in the Autumn, to berry picking in the Summer. This is a great way to get the whole family outdoors and for them to learn about where some of their food come from. There are also various types of Food Festivals and Farmers Markets that you can attend. My local town hold a Farmers Market one Sunday of every month and my Parents town has a Food Festival every Summer (Covid allowing)!
Children love digging around in the dirt and getting messy. If the space in your garden allows, try dedicating a set area for your children to “look after” and maintain. Help them to plant some flowers or vegetables and then encourage them to look after them. If you don’t have the space for this in your garden, why not give them a couple of pots on a patio or balcony to have as their own?
Pick a warm and clear Summer evening, take some blankets out into the garden and lay down together looking up at the stars. My children love this as, firstly it probably means they are up past their bedtime and secondly, it usually ends up with us all telling and making up stories about the stars together. Take a flask of hot chocolate out with you and turn it into a really memorable experience.
Play at the Beach
The Beach is one of our favourite outdoor places to take the children. They offer such a wide variety of play and sensory environments and opportunities; from pebbles to sand to water. The Beach is also a great place, as long as its safe to do so, to just pick a spot to sit down and let your children run around and play by themselves-so don’t forget to take your book!
Get Climbing those Trees
Tree climbing is a great way for children to begin independent risk assessment. Often, at first, children won’t climb very high off the ground but as they begin to build their confidence and skills, they will start to venture higher. Through practice they will learn what they are able to do and usually won’t put themselves in danger, but you may want to stay fairly close by for this activity-just in case!
Cook and Eat Outdoors
Cooking over a campfire is such a fun and exciting experience for many children. Get them involved with the food prep and the cooking and they will love the eating part. If you’re not really feeling confident enough to cook a whole meal outdoors why not try toasting marshmallows or making S’mores? The children will definitely love that.
Children just love camping. The thrill of sleeping outside is so exciting for them. Camping gives children an opportunity to fully immerse themselves in nature for an extended period of time and become a little bit wild. Let the children take some responsibility for helping put the tent up, cook over the camp stove and collect water from the tap. Go for it, you won’t regret the experience.
So, I’ve shared some reasons as to why to get outside and some ideas as to what you could try outside, but what about my personal experience? As I mentioned previously, my oldest daughter sometimes struggles with separation anxiety and concentration issues at school, she can also be quite highly strung with a fiery temper. Over the last few months since being more intentional with the time my family spend outside and making a conscious decision to spend an extended period of time outdoors every day, I have definitely noticed a change in her. She is sleeping better and at home her concentration levels for her homework and independent reading have improved. Now this could just be a coincidence and she may have started to settle anyway, but I am sure that the time she is spending playing independently outdoors is having a positive impact on her and her wellbeing.
If you have found this interesting and you want to learn more, I would recommend these books to read:
How to Raise a Wild Child by Scott Sampson
Balanced and Barefoot by Angela Hanscom
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
We absolutely loved Sophie’s post on independent outdoor play and why it is so important. Do your little ones love independent outdoor play?
Sophie Whitworth | @sophieawhitworth