Play with sticks and not with screens

  • Vani Rana
  • 2018-12-14

Many of my greatest childhood memories took place outside. I was fortunate to have a garden full of flowers, trees and bushes to play amongst. My earliest creative moments happened in that garden, as I made a world all my own. I and my siblings imagined ourselves sometimes as detectives, sometimes as bandits and spent hours observing tadpoles, imitating butterflies and following ants and other critters around.

Sadly, the world is very different now for our children and families. We connect with each other virtually on screen, or in the safety and comfort of our homes and often in the luxury of restaurants and hotels. How often do we connect with the natural environment?

According to Childwise, a UK based research agency working with children and young people, children age 5 -16 now use the internet for an average of three hours a day and watch TV for 2.1 hours daily. The research firm’s findings suggest that children spend more time in front of a screen in one day than they spend exercising or being physically active outside during an entire week. Richard Louv called this phenomenon, ‘nature-deficit disorder’ in his book, The Last Child in the Wood. In the book he documents how modern family life has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Louv, tells the story of interviewing a child who told him that he liked playing indoors more than outdoors “’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

Longer school days, increased homework, rapid urbanization and increased access to technology all play a role. Parents who fear the “diseases and dangers” of playing outside are knowingly or unknowingly discouraging children to leave the screen and go outside. This leaves us to ponder whether nature has indeed become more riskier than it was when we were kids or have we become so fixated on keeping our children ‘safe” and making them tech-savvy global citizens, that we have forgotten to encourage them to become local adventurers, discoverers and explorers.

It's a problem we need to address, because the consequences of failing to allow our children to play independently outside are beginning to make themselves felt. In the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the west (CDC 2008). Mirroring the trend already established by developed countries, the obesity epidemic in low- and middle-income countries like Nepal now encompasses young children and adolescents (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2010). Obesity is perhaps the most visible symptom of the lack of outdoor play, but literally dozens of studies from around the world show regular time outdoors produces significant improvements in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning ability, creativity and mental, psychological and emotional wellbeing.

We know that play is an essential part of normal childhood development. Ever since I began working closely with children, I have become increasingly interested in the positive impact experiences in nature can have on children’s development and growth. Why is it so important that we make ways to re-integrate it into our children’s experiences?

Creativity

Children who play outside, especially solo or with peers, become naturally curious and creative. The outdoors is full of materials that can be used for imaginative play. Small stones become babies, leaves become blankets, sticks become telescopes. Using imagination and creativity are valuable skills that will guide kids throughout their life.

Physical Health and Motor Skills

Children need to use their bodies in experimental ways. Outdoor play in nature inspires and often requires running, kicking, jumping, climbing, and balancing. Coordination and core strength are improved. When these skills are developed early on, children are more successful not only in sports but in academics as well, not to mention they are healthier in mind and spirit. Additionally, as reported in the journal Optometry and Vision Science 2008, researchers found that kids who spent more time outside during the day tended to have better distance vision than those who favored indoor activities.

Mental Wellbeing

Children today have less control over their lives than ever before. The school day and school year have continued to get longer, homework has become the norm (sometimes for kids as young as 3!) and often every other minute of children’s lives is scheduled. According to a study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, during the last 30 years, the amount of children's free time has declined, in favor of more structured activities. For example, between 1981-1997, unstructured outdoor activities fell by 50%. Children need freedom to play. They need time to themselves and with peers. It is no surprise that as we have removed these things from children’s lives we have seen a vast increase in psychological problems. Time in nature offers great opportunities to help kids take back some of their childhood.

Social Skills

Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors. Play is social and it promotes learning about vital social skills such as turn- taking, sharing, negotiation and leadership (American Academy of Pediatrics, Jan. 2007.)

Empathy

Time in nature helps kids understand just how precious life is, and that life truly is all around us. Our world is in crisis and our children today are the generation that will be able to stand up and fix it. Appreciating nature is the first step in the process.In an age of cable TV, video games, Facebook and YouTube, is it actually important to be able to tell basil leaves (Tulsi) from fig leaves (pipal), or crows from ravens? Well, it obviously can't do any harm to know a bit about the natural world beyond the screen and the front door. And if, as a result of that, you develop a love for nature, you may care something for its survival, which is probably no bad thing.

This All Makes Sense, But Where Do We Begin?

Offering children nature experiences doesn’t mean you have to change your whole life. There are several simple things that you can start. Helping children become aware of their environment is the first step to getting them interests. Here are just a few ideas:

Plant something

Even if you don’t have access to your own outdoor space, there are ways to grow things with your child. It can be as simple as planting a small herb garden (dhania, tulsi) can be grown in small eco-friendly containers in your kitchen window. An added bonus is that kids are more likely to try foods if they helped to grow them! Due to limited space, we have a kitchen garden on our roof where we grow daily vegetable staples like raayo/palungo ko saag, tomatoes, lettuce. Our daughter always loves it when we add our home-grown lettuce to her sandwich! My family is a big fan of succulents and cacti, and our daughter loves growing these easy-to-grow plants in her room. Many of these plants are easy to propagate and children feel a sense of pride when “their” plant grows and thrives under their care.

Explore neighborhood hiking trails

Kathmandu is surrounded by hills and has great day hike trails all around – like Shivapuri, Pulchowki and Champadevi. Pick a trail and follow it on a regular basis - you will be amazed at what you and your child discover! Bring a bird book and learn some of the native birds, take photographs of trees and plants and research their names when you return home. Spending time outside is a way for you to show your child how fun learning can be.

Make art with natural materials

Next time you are outside, bring a collection bag. Simply give your child a bag to collect natural objects and resist your desire to limit what your child can put in the bag as long as it is natural, safe and can fit inside. Children are born explorers and you will be amazed what they notice and collect! You can take the activity to another level by providing them with cardboard and glue to create a collage with when they return home! My home is filled with stones, pebbles, pinecones, leaves etc collected from riverbeds, hiking trails. Each one of them has a memory attached to it.

Advocate for/Encourage “green” spaces and plant-based learning units in your child’s school

The majority of children are in childcare/school for extended periods of time, often eight to ten hours per day, which makes greening their environment by adding natural elements vital to their overall health and functioning. Naturalizing outdoor learning environments means bringing back trees, shrubs, perennial plants, vines, and edible plants for children’s enjoyment and healthy development. A diverse array of plant life encourages children to experience nature in more ways and more frequently. Talk to the school administration about making the school more “green”. Involving children in caring for the school garden or simply growing plants in containers will give children opportunities to engage with nature. Many schools usually have a “nature/environment” unit in their science curriculum, talk to your child’s teachers about ways you can extend that learning into your home life. According to a study by Julie Ernst and Martha Monroe (2004), through environmental education offered in schools, students increased their critical thinking skills on tests.

Spending time in nature opens a world of wonder and awe.There are ample opportunities for discovery. Nature experiences, whether in the garden, in a nearby locality or on a family camping trip help kids understand the interconnectedness of our beautiful earth. Time outside is calming and balancing as well as fun! Time in nature is not just a luxury, it is a way to educate children and prepare them for the future.