Who hasn’t felt a certain nostalgia for the time they spent playing outside as kids? Whether it was a twilight game of Chasey in the backyard, a game of Hide and Seek with your siblings or perhaps a long afternoon of cricket with the extended family on Christmas day, nearly all of us will be able to recall fond childhood memories in the backyard.
As it turns out, those sorts of experiences weren’t just giving us a new appreciation of free play, they were also providing us with all sorts of developmental benefits that the wonders of modern science are now proving.
Getting outside and active
For children, free play in the outdoors – rather than structured activities such as organised sports – has loads of benefits, and this is supported by research. A 2013 review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looked at studies from a range of different disciplines and found that there are massive benefits gained by simply spending time outside. In terms of psychological benefits, the studies reviewed were able to show increased self-esteem, improved mood, reduced anger and frustration, reduced anxiety and improved behaviour. One study from Taiwan even found that school students exposed to plants had “significantly fewer punishment records due to misbehaviour than the control group”.
Playing to learn
We often feel as parents that we need to structure our children’s play time in order to give them an edge and supercharge their potential, but we’re increasingly hearing that giving children more down time without any specific goals is a win for everyone: better results in the classroom, less ferrying of busy kids for parents.
Studies show that being outside reduces mental fatigue, and improves academic performance, productivity, cognitive functioning and task performance in children. Time spent outside was linked to the ability to pay attention, something most parents will tell you their kids struggle with at times.
Physical activity and growing rates of childhood obesity are another reason kids need to get outside and play. Running around the backyard, kicking or throwing a ball, playing Hopscotch or other games, all help build kids’ physical fitness. So while the backyard might seem small to you and the challenge of climbing a short ladder on a slide seems negligible, remember that to your kids the spaces and heights will appear much larger.
Besides fitness, experts recommend the great outdoors because it can lead to a reduction in the stress hormone, cortisol.
The outdoors and immunity
Did you ever make a mud pie as a kid? Making direct contact with soil, whether through gardening, digging for worms or, yes, making mud pies, has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety and facilitate learning. What’s more, playing in the dirt, or even a sandpit, can help build stronger immune systems.
A bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae, commonly found in soil, has been shown to activate a group of neurons that produce the brain chemical serotonin, enhancing feelings of wellbeing and apparently stimulating the immune system.
And children don’t even have to be actually playing in the dirt to increase their immunity. In 2001 a study looking at the impact of outdoor play on young children found that those children who attended preschools and nurseries where a large amount of time was spent outdoors were sick less often.
Skills to take to adulthood
Research has also found that children who play outside have a better understanding of risk, and improved self-confidence, and both of these are important skills for our children to take into adulthood.
Most modern parents will have struggled with the desire to give their children freedom while still protecting them from danger, especially given that children often want the experience of doing something a bit risky. Now, researchers have been able to narrow down the specific types of dangers that children seek.
Professor Ellen Sandseter of Norway’s Queen Maud University in Trondheim has identified six categories of risks for children: and they are all experiences that teach how to assess potential hazards while also providing a thrill.
The first is heights, meaning we should embrace their climbing escapades, whether it’s a backyard play structure, a DIY obstacle course or an interesting tree.
The second is speed, and we can introduce limits to avoid accidents. Think about giving them time on a swing or slide to get that exciting sensation of speed that they crave.
A desire to play with tools is another source of danger that parents might want to protect their child from, but which youngsters around the world want. Of course you don’t want them to hurt themselves, but a bit of DIY in the backyard with a suitable hammer and some nails is a great activity.
Being chased is another behaviour identified and that’s one that’s easy for parents to play. Who doesn’t fondly remember games of Chasey as kids? Get outside and play a game of Catch me if You Can: even the youngest kids will enjoy it.
Finally, the thrill of getting lost (and then found, of course) is another experience you can give them without putting them in actual danger, which makes a game of hide and seek in your own backyard a real no-brainer.
Check out the play equipment range available at Bunnings in-store or click here to view online.