Kathriona Devereux: The great outdoors - why fresh air fun is vital for our children

I really hope we use the experience of slowing down and being more physically active during the Lockdown to re-calibrate how children spend their days, so says Kathriona Devereux
Kathriona Devereux: The great outdoors - why fresh air fun is vital for our children

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE: Children need to move about outside and explore to learn. Posed by model

THE appearance of red and white plastic tape wrapped around swings and slides was one of the stark signs that something was amiss.

Children don’t need playground equipment, but security tape to curtail child’s play was a sobering reminder that something very serious was happening in the world.

The reality is we curtail children’s play all the time!

We expect them to sit at school desks for hours, we give them devices and screens for entertainment, we keep them indoors when there’s a bit of light drizzle, and we restrict them from playing in their neighbourhoods because of our fears of them hurting themselves or encountering dangerous strangers.

We do this even though research shows that children who play outside are less likely to get sick, or to be stressed or become aggressive, and are more adaptable to life’s unpredictable turns.

According to Early Childhood Ireland “children learn through play, movement, comm,unication, and sensory experience which the outdoors provides for on a much greater scale than indoors”.

Outdoor play is more active than indoor play and movement wires up the neural pathways in the brain.

Exploring nature, swinging, climbing, building and construction, dens, mud kitchens, different surfaces and weather conditions all provide unique stimulation for the growing brain.

There are notable examples of creches, pre-schools and schools that embrace the outdoor play ethos or have successful active school programmes, but as playgrounds open up and childcare facilities and schools start planning for re-opening, I really hope we use the experience of slowing down and being more physically active during the Lockdown to re-calibrate how children spend their days.

If we build in plenty of outdoor time for them, it will improve their overall wellbeing — and may even help curb any spread of Covid-19.

The HSE’s guidelines on physical activity say that toddlers and children should be physically active every day for at least three hours, spread throughout the day.

Experts recommend that at least one hour of this activity should be energetic and children should be encouraged to develop a range of physical skills — climbing, riding a bike, running — and should play outdoors.

Children need to move and explore — its how their brains develop and they need to move and explore from birth all the way through their lives and continue through adulthood.

Sometimes we forget that movement is as important for learning and brain wiring as mastering the ABCs and 123s.

The first thing a baby starts to control is her hands and arms, when she starts to bring them into the mid-line, up to her face and into her chest.

This control of the arms, along with better vision, leads her to reach out and grasp something around the six-week mark, and improvement in vision allows her to see faces better and the first smiles and interactions start around then.

All babies work off their own inner timetable but generally they start to roll around four months and need to be given opportunities to move and control their bodies with plenty of floor time.

Being free and allowed to roll around in a space is an innate behaviour of babies that sometimes is curtailed by being born into a sedentary family or one that uses bouncers or baby chairs.

The different achievements or physical milestones of the baby can’t be thought of in isolation — every skill is built on the mastery of a previous skill. It’s like laying down the foundation brick or the scaffolding of your future body and self.

Motor skills, vision skills, perception and emotional skills are all interdependent. So rolling is a precursor to walking because it involves controlling your head, it primes the inner ear for balance, and it sees babies playing with gravity and getting from their back to their side to their front.

Paediatric physiotherapists look for different physical skills as children get older. From four onwards, children should be able to stand on one leg, play hopscotch and have lots of opportunities to ‘mess around’ and get confident with their bodies.

The recommendation is little or no screens till kids are two years old and then limited screen time afterwards. The HSE says two-to-five-years-olds should spend no more than one hour a day in front of a screen.

When children are spending hours on screens then what are they not doing? They’re not running, jumping, skipping, climbing — things that build their confidence, stamina and resilience.

At the start of the lockdown, I watched a viral video of Chinese parents’ ingenious games and activities to occupy their kids and give them the physical stimulation they needed — dancing games in the living room, puzzles made out of cereal boxes, and relay races with teddy bears.

In Ireland, we were lucky that our version of lockdown still allowed outdoor exercise and thankfully the weather gods smiled on us and we were able to unleash the children.

Friends of mine who are teachers and parents of young children have said the importance and benefit of lots of outdoor physical play has really been brought home to them during the restrictions.

It has made them think how much is expected of young children, to sit and learn inside, and what changes can and should be made to make outdoor learning a bigger part of the school day.

Hopefully, as we adjust to the ‘new normal’, other parents, teachers and childcare providers are thinking the same thing because if you never have time as a kid to play outside and be totally wild, when are your going to?

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