Why getting your kids among nature is good for their health

Letting your little ones play outside is essential to their emotional and cognitive development – and general wellbeing.

Australia is prized for its sweeping plains, jewel seas and beautiful weather, but don’t ask our kids about the great outdoors.

It seems many are barely experiencing it – and their health, both mental and physical, could well be in jeopardy.

The local research is piling up. Our progeny isn’t engaging with nature much at all.

In fact, recent research has suggested only one in three Aussie kids engage in free play outside on a daily basis. And here’s another frightening statistic – about a third of kids have never climbed a tree!

In an ideal world, kids would spend at least an hour a day in outdoor, unstructured, free and adventurous play. But studies from around the world show screen time, coupled with a growth in helicopter parenting, has completely eaten into kids’ green time.

Now scientists are starting to look at what impact this disengagement with nature is having on our offspring. It’s affecting everything from eyesight and allergy risk to resilience, social skills and the risk of being diagnosed with ADHD.

Recent research shows kids spending less time outdoors

Go for a hike and reap the benefits of nature for children's health.Besides not climbing trees, playing in mud or jumping in puddles, the distance children explore has shrunk by 90 per cent in the past 30 years.

Some research has found that on average kids spend less time outside than maximum-security prisoners.

This nature shutdown is articulated surprisingly well in a Victorian government report of a few years ago: “Humans have forgotten how much the natural world means to them. It has been reported that modern people are experiencing a spiritual famine and that alcohol, food, and drug addictions are futile attempts to fill the spiritual emptiness that has arisen from loss of contact with nature.”

Studies are supporting these words, with links between happiness as adults with how much they played freely outside as kids.

A study in the American Journal of Public Health linked an increase in being able to play in green outdoor settings with reduced ADHD symptoms in kids.

And other research found just letting kids – in this case ones aged five to seven years – play freely every day in an outdoor playground littered with equipment, old tyres and boxes led to more social, creative, and resilient behaviour – and less bullying.

There’s also the eyesight finding. A three-year study in China discovered that increasing outdoor play by 40 minutes a day among school-aged children was associated with lower rates of shortsightedness.

Let them climb trees

An organisation called Nature Play is gaining in popularity around the country. Its aim is to help parents get their kids back outside, engaging with the natural

It started in Western Australia and its chief executive Griffin Longley is passionate about reconnecting our littlies with the great outdoors.

“It’s not just about exercise. It’s also been shown over and over again in research that when kids engage in unstructured play outside it fires up their imaginations and is essential for emotional and cognitive development,” he says.

“The bottom line is all the studies show that kids need to be able to play outside to be healthy in all ways.”

How to get your kids into the great outdoors

Invest in some wheelsGet into the garden and reap the benefits of nature for children's health.

Whether it’s a ride-on toy for littlies, a trick scooter, a skateboard or a bike, there’s nothing more exciting – and possibly daring – for kids than a set of wheels.

Take a hike

Pick an age-appropriate walk. It can be just down to the shops with the littlies or a short bush walk with preschoolers. Pack some water and snacks and just go.

Plant a veggie garden

Kids love digging around in dirt and playing with water. Then there is the added bonus of them caring and nurturing for those plants and reaping the gastronomic benefits. Kids are more likely to eat veggies they grew themselves.

Set up a treasure hunt or activity stations

It takes a little pre-organisation but both of these activities can be set up in your backyard. Set goals such as “find a yellow flower” or “collect three pebbles.” Or “run to the purple towel and do three star jumps”.

Keen for more ways to support your child’s health? See why setting good sleep patterns is imperative for your child’s health.