Outdoor development and our children: How are they confronting nature?

Collaborative Guest post

Between 1970 and the late 1990s, to be sent to your room as a child with no access to the outdoors was a suitable punishment for bad behaviour; now, many children would prefer to be in their bedroom than exploring the outdoors.

In their rooms, many children have all the entertainment that they require – social media, games consoles and smart devices. This new digital age can have a detrimental impact on a child’s development and well-being. Together with Infinite Playgrounds, designers of natural outdoor playground equipment, we explore how and why a child’s experience has been limited when it comes to the outdoors in the modern age.

Screen-based living

Recent reports shared figures suggesting that the average child watched more than 17 hours of television a week and spent more than 20 hours a week online browsing websites and using social media apps. Although the internet and smart devices have revolutionised the way that children learn, play and communicate, it becomes worrying when the internet is all that they know.

Researchers are confident that these distractions in a child’s bedroom are having profound effect on how they view the outdoors. Having entertainment at the touch of a button is arguably why they prefer to be on their smart device than go outside. However, some also believe that although smart technologies can be educational, it is the well-meaning sensibility of parents that are limiting children when it comes outdoor play.

Stranger danger

Although children appear to be reluctant to step outside, it is believed that they are also deterred by their parent’s advice. The rise of stranger danger has become an important factor in everyone’s lives and child safety in the streets has been reconsidered. For this reason, children are not wandering very far – research showed that the radius around the parental home where children play is becoming rapidly smaller. Since the 1970s, this area has shrunk by almost 90%.

Children as young as seven and eight used to enjoy walking to school on their own or with one another. Now, only 10% of this age group travel to school without a parent or guardian. If this is the case when walking to school, then the chances of a child roaming freely in natural settings with their friends is slim. No one is at fault in this scenario, parents simply want their children to remain safe; however, an almost overprotective approach can compromise a child’s mental and physical health.

Health impacts of staying indoors

Adults who are fit and healthy are more likely to have played outdoors and had a positive attitude to exercise as a child than those who are unfit in their adult life. This is because outdoor play is associated with an active lifestyle, whereas inactive lifestyles are associated to those who remain relatively immobile indoors.

Lack of activity and the physical effects

The fact that children are choosing to spend more time in their bedrooms than exploring outside is having massive effects on their well-being and fitness levels. Around three in ten children in England that are aged between 2 and 15 are considered overweight or obese. If these current trends continue, then by 2050 more than half of all adults, and a quarter of all children, will be obese.

Lack of activity and mental health

In addition to physical health issues, research has found that mental health problems have increased in children from the digital age. The Good Childhood Inquiry found that between 1974 and 1999, the number of children suffering from emotional and behavioural problems increased drastically. Now, one in ten children between the ages of 5 and 16 have a mental health disorder that has been clinically diagnosed.

Children are no longer venturing to the countryside or areas that they have never been before. They are not engaging with the natural world, and are not picking up the resilience and natural problem-solving skills that children of the 70s learnt from fending for themselves.

Why is playing outdoors important for child development?

As discussed, the activity and fitness levels of adults are often dependent on a child’s attitude to exercise and play. If a modern society is to stay healthy throughout their lifespan, children should be looking to play outdoors to make exercise a part of their everyday lives from an early age.

Playing outdoors and exploring allows children to pick up skills that they would not have if they stayed indoors. For supervised imaginative play, there are sensory stimulating playgrounds, such as those designed by Infinite Playgrounds, that assist with outdoor development.

Our natural world is highly complex, with an abundance of shapes, textures and spaces for children to explore, discover and hide within. Mental health is highly influenced by a child’s physical health and therefore playing in varied environments is key for their overall well-being. Letting go of the smart device and getting children outside to explore the great outdoors might just be the making of them.