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Why do children need to be engaged in outdoor play? Why do they need to spend time under the sun and running around? Does outdoor play only include going up and down the playground structure? Or just playing on the swings and see-saws?

In this article, we will focus on the importance of outdoor play and its benefits. The aim is to help us identify the opportunities that will support children’s learning during outdoor play.

Louv (2005) uses the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe the characteristics of children who seem anxious and show physical discomfort in natural settings. Children who live in dominantly urban settings may have a higher tendency to develop this deficit, resulting from overexposure to passive screen time, prolonged hours in passive transport and more sedentary time than the active time a day.

Research has shown that much of the recent interest in children’s outdoor play has been motivated by alarming changes in children’s health and predictions of their health status as adults. Chronic illnesses such as obesity and Type II diabetes are on the increase in many developed and developing countries (Stanley, Richardson, and Prior 2005; Jeffery and Sherwood 2008). Fighting diabetes has been a hot topic by our Prime Minister in his recent National Day Rally too!

So what does an outdoor environment potentially offer that the indoor setting cannot?

Play spaces in a natural environment include plants, trees, sand, rocks, mud, water and other elements from nature. These spaces invite open-ended interactions, spontaneity, risk-taking, exploration, discovery, and connection with nature. They foster an appreciation of the natural environment, develop environmental awareness and provide a platform for ongoing environmental education (DEEWR, 2009, p.16). Hence, as adults, did have we provided sufficient opportunities for children to connect with nature and discuss global environmental issues with them?

Here are some suggestions to how we can introduce environmental awareness to your child during outdoor play: 

  • Water conservation – Talk about the water cycle, the rain, the clouds and how we conserve water
  • Incorporate animals and plants that the children have observed during outdoor play/walks in conversations with them
  • Allow opportunities for children to observe and sort natural materials such as fallen sticks, leaves, feathers, shells, stones and bark according to their five senses
  • Allowing opportunities for children to play on slopes, natural puddles, grass, sand etc.
  • Provide props such as binoculars, magnifiers, books or posters for investigation of the great outdoors and encourage children to identify plants and animals
  • Embark on outdoor adventure trips to the parks, open areas, natural reserves, beaches etc.

Both children and parents can learn to notice and respond to changes in natural settings and collaborate to create sustainable outdoor learning environments. Parents play a significant role in offering children direct experiences with nature and being positive role models. This is essential if children are to understand the complexities of sustainability, the systems that support life and why caring for the land, plants, animals and ourselves matter (Young & Elliott, 2013).

It is important to help children to develop an appreciation for the outdoors as it offers a place for motor and sensory exploration, environmental experience, nurturing interactions and adult-child conversation (Greenman, Stonehouse & Schweikert, 2008).

Embrace the richness of the outdoors by starting with a nature walk this weekend. You may be amazed by what you may see.

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