Research by UK charity Play England has found that while 72% of adults preferred playing outside when they were younger, only 40% of today’s children would choose outdoor play over time spent in front of the TV or computer. This means that our children are missing out on extremely important time spent outside, not to mention development processes which will shape how they are to grow as adults. The same study found that elements of play which parents fondly remember from their own childhood – making daisy chains, playing hopscotch are virtually redundant activities for our children. This is worrying and is only expected to get worse as we approach winter. With colder weather comes an even colder attitude towards playing outside. 1 in 7 parents have admitted that they do not feel fit enough to play outside with their children which means that it is even more integral that we assess why outdoor play is so vital for children and what can be done to encourage children (and parents) to spend more time doing it.
Why are less children playing outside?
Today’s children are growing up in a ‘technology age’, where two year olds know how to work an i-Pad and mobile phones have brought technology into every aspect of our moving and stationary life. Research has found that children spend an average of 5 12; hours a day in front of a computer or TV screen which – if you take off the hours spent in school – is the majority of their play time.
Jan Cosgrove from the charity Fair Play for Children has other concerns; he believes that the rise in numbers of cars on the street, both parked and moving, has meant that there is no longer space for children to play safely outside their homes. He named this “the privatisation” of the residential street by the car owner and says that this increase in car ownership has caused a “catastrophic loss of safe play space.
Safety has also been named as a cause, with parents becoming extremely concerned that their children are in danger when left unsupervised and being scared to let them play outside. Jan Cosgrove also believes that the unwelcoming attitude of neighbours scaremongering children who play out on the street is also an issue. He states that Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABC) an agreement designed to make an individual aware of his/her anti social behaviour has put pressure on children to stay inside through fear of being issued with a threatening letter from the police.
Of course, many other factors have contributed to the decline of outdoor play, but these are considered to be the most prevalent and well researched.
Structured Vs Unstructured Play
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When discussing outdoor play it is first important to understand the notions of structured and unstructured play. Structured play occurs when an adult organises play for children whereas unstructured play is when children organise play themselves. (Find out more information on the differences between structured and unstructured play here.)
A study conducted by Josie Gleave and Issy Hamilton found that over time unstructured, self-directed play has become replaced by more structured and educational activities organised by adults. They believe that this has led play to become an unaffordable luxury in modern society. Obviously educational play, organised sports and other structured activities are important for enhancing a child’s academic achievement but this study found that there are growing concerns that a children’s free time has become too concerned with learning rather than the enjoyment of play itself.
Research conducted by Roger L. Mackett and James Paskins found that unstructured play is actually much healthier for children as children who are allowed to leave the house without adult supervision are more active and enjoy a richer social life than those who are constantly supervised. As Jan Cosgrove put it ”kids are so much healthier and better adjusted when they have unstructured play”.
So what is it that makes this type of play so healthy for our children? And why should we be making sure that they are doing it even in the colder months?
Why is playing outdoors good for children?
Dr Anne Zachary – a child development specialist – has given us her opinion on why the great outdoors is so integral to the health of children:
“Children need to run, climb, jump and play actively for optimum growth and development, and the great outdoors is the best place for young people to actively play and explore. As we know, limited active movement and a poor diet contribute to childhood obesity. Research also suggests that being overweight as a child actually leads to physical changes in the brain called metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome has a negative influence on the ability to perform mental tasks such as math[s] and reading.
Anne also discusses the positive developmental effects of outdoor play:
“Research tells us that children interact more socially when playing outdoors vs. indoors, and healthy interaction with peers is important for development. Exploring and playing in the natural environment of the outdoors leads children to use their imaginations and be creative. A stick can become a sword, a leaf can be a plate, and the top of an acorn can serve as a teacup. Playing outside is also a wonderful sensory experience, with opportunities to explore in the water, dirt, sand and mud. Moving and playing actively are also great for gross motor development and help with natural stress relief.
Sue Palmer a child development and education specialist and author – also agrees. She believes that unstructured play, particularly in the first seven years of a child’s life, is vital as it takes place in the ‘real world’ in ‘real time’ and ‘real space.’Her work has led her to conclude that outdoor play “produces bright and balanced children and, therefore, bright and balanced adults.” If we keep children locked inside they will not be able to form the social skills they need to tackle the adult world. For Sue “play is as vital to development as food or sleep.”
It is also during free, unstructured play that children partake in role play which is particularly important when it comes to development, as Sue Palmer puts it:
“It is through role play that children are able to work out all the little things which bother them. They play out the battle of good and evil and it is through role play that children get possible ideas for the future. They also use it to get rid of aggression and eventually it is through role play that children become real, balanced people.
A playhouse can become an imaginary home, cardboard boxes are forbidden castles, buckets act as boats; the imagination that unstructured play brings out in children is extremely integral to how they see and experience the world both in their childhood and their future.
The Issue of Safety
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We can see from this why unstructured outdoor play is so important to both the health and development of children and this is why it is integral that this doesn’t stop just because it’s winter. However, another concern is the safety aspect of outdoor play. This is particularly the case in winter with darker nights and colder weather. The good news though is that it has actually been proven that being out in the cold from a younger age builds up children’s immune systems meaning that we are less likely to develop autoimmune disorders and allergies later on in life.
Sue Palmer has shared the following reactions that she has come across from parents with regards to the safety of outdoor play. Here we will discuss what you can do to relieve the worry a bit:
Traffic is dangerous. This is completely rational and links back to the issue that Jan Cosgrave mentioned of their being too many cars in the streets. This is also backed up by a poll carried out by Play England which found that 53% of adults think that traffic is a barrier to outdoor play. Sue’s advice for this is to ensure that your children are aware of the dangers facing them. Teach them to look both ways when crossing the road and to play on (or close to) the path and garden. It is also important to make sure that they aren’t playing on major roads and explain as best you can why they aren’t supposed to.
“Stranger danger. With all the terrible things in the news, it is easy to see why parents are worried about ‘stranger danger’. However Sue states that children are still safer playing in the park than they are on Facebook. This is reiterated through NSPCC research which concluded that the internet has eclipsed traditional ‘stranger danger’ threats as the biggest threat to our children’s safety. Again, it is important to teach children the knowledge that they need to avoid such situations. Lessons such as, never follow a stranger and if a stranger approaches get on the floor and scream are important for children to learn. This article has more examples of how to better educate children on such matters.
“People will think that I am a bad parent for leaving my children unsupervised. Sue states that this reaction has emerged since the Madeline McCann case and has been generated mainly by the media. The Play England poll also backs this up as 28% of the adults questioned agreed that they feared being judged by the neighbours if they let their children play unsupervised outdoors. As with the point above, it is important to teach children to follow proper practises and to also educate other adults about the importance of playing outside. It is also worth mentioning that your neighbours may have similar concerns and that working together to make a safer neighbourhood is the most ideal solution to the problem.
What all this information means is that outdoor, unstructured play is extremely important for the healthy growth and development of children, no matter what time of year it is or how cold it is outside. Obviously, there are time restrictions as the nights are darker, and we must ensure that children are well wrapped up, but this shouldn’t be a barrier to play in the great outdoors. Winter is a magical season, especially for children, and you only have to challenge them to a snowman making competition to see how imaginative they can be. So get those wellies on and join your children this winter to experience the magic of free outdoor play.