Outdoor Play For Children

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The September 10 headlines of BBC news service chronicles that 'no outdoor play is hurting children'. About 300 signatories consisting of writers, novelists, academics, child psychologists and concerned parents have written a letter to the Daily Telegraph pointing out that “ Adults' anxieties are damaging children…children's health is suffering because they are losing the chance to play outside…over-anxious parents, computer games and school tests are to blame for this disturbing trend.

An UK based study has pointed out that most of UK children derive their dose of entertainment from sources best described as ‘ junk’. This brings within its ambit various sources of entertainment that are technologically aided, like the television, video, play stations, mobile gamming etc. Real play is fast being replaced by virtual play triggering consequences that are not just physical in nature, but also psychological. The decline in "unstructured, loosely supervised" play is adversely affecting children's mental health”. Clearly then this is a problem that is indeed disturbing. No country can afford to gloss over the health of its children - physical or otherwise, and needs to do something in this regard.

[edit] Lack of Outdoor Activity- A Global Phenomenon

So is this a problem restricted only to the UK ? Probably not,as the Unicef would have us understand. Recently the UN body conducted a research in 22 industrial nations to track down the ill-effects of a lack of outdoor play. The results not withstanding, what is more important at this point is the fact that the 22 nations were spread across the world, thereby showing that this may be worldwide reality. Children all over are spending less time playing in parks, beaches…in short outdoors. The reasons range from

  • Inavailability of spaces. This is sadly an urban phenomenon wherein the land mafia, in a bid to maximize profits has usurped every inch of available space leaving children with almost no free space to indulge themselves,
  • Over protective caregivers who do not send children to spaces where they might get hurt,
  • Absence of any adult care giver who can take the child outdoors to play,
  • Highly competitive parents who put an enormous premium on school work and academic pursuits. These parents are more willing to send their children to a quiz club, an art class or a music class than to an adventure sports club,
  • Schools giving out huge amounts of homework leaving a child with very little time on their hands, and
  • The hedonistic principle works here as well. So children find more entertainment in televised serials or cartoons or in the new age video games which require very little interactions. Its more one sided and does not elicit a response. Children themselves are not keen to go out and play traditional outdoor games.

It has now been unequivocally established that children can benefit from play that is outside the home, in an unstructured environment, is loosely supervised and follows no real agenda apart from letting children get some amount of physical exercise and meeting children from their age group. The benefits are not just confined to the physical; in fact they are far more outreaching in terms of mental development.

[edit] Specifications of a Good Playground

Outside play cannot flourish if it is not tempting enough to draw children out of their homes. This cannot happen if it does not cater to a few basic criteria. These days where every thing is planned, so are play grounds. Gone are the days when there would be open spaces for children to explore. These days’, cities and their appendages are all planned and by extension so are the playgrounds that are usually all designed. So what are the specifications of a good play ground?

Firstly, a good playground needs to be large enough and designed in such a way that children can run around without bumping into obstacles, where they can be themselves- just ‘children’, and make a lot of noise and mess, and generally be able to explore about the environment.

Secondly it must have something in it for all age groups. So even a one year old must have certain things to do in a playground as also a boy of 12 years.

Above all other things, it must be a safe zone because this is something that a parent will look into before letting his child go to these play grounds. All swings, jungle gyms, slides should be maintained to see they are not broken.

[edit] Benefits of Outside play

One of the foremost benefits that are derived from outside play is the increased amount of physical activity. This has been known through logic and wisdom passed down through the ages. Now it has also been the topic of much research in the area of developmental psychology. For example, Wardle in 1996-2003 has extensively worked in this area and has highlighted why outdoor activity is crucial for children.

Most of the research findings do show the following

  • Most of the children across the world are spending very less time in the playground or in environments outside their homes and classrooms. The time estimates given are most appalling, if not surprising considering that children and nature or natural surroundings do fit in ‘ hand-in-glove’ and so the unusually short time of 30 minutes in a day is kind of retarding in a way to children’s physical growth and overall development.
  • Outside play has been known to increase metabolic rates. So children who engage in it do tend to digest their food better and also have an increased intake of food. This obviously leads to a better growth spurt as opposed to those who do not go outside and are deprived of physical activity.
  • Outdoor play also leads to increased intake of Vitamin D. the sun light is considered the most potent source of vitamin D and helps in building stronger bones during this time of physical growth.

Basically, outdoor activity is recommended for two main reasons. One, it is crucial to developmental milestones that a child achieves. Exploring, risk taking behaviour, motor and sensory development, a keener sense of perception are all intrinsically influenced by outdoor games.

Second, there are psychological benefits that come out of outdoor play, especially if it happens with the family. These days families are small, parents go out to work leaving their children in the care of secondary care givers. With so much of mindless violence, especially targeted against the children, most parents are frightened to let their child go unescorted. Then they themselves come back home all busy and tired, well past the prime hours of play. These factors lead to a child parent divide. Outdoor activities provide an opportunity for parents to bond with their children in an environment that is fun, carefree and less stressful.

[edit] Physical Benefits

  • Development of motor skills whether large or small can be aided with outdoor exercises. Children also develop cardio vascular endurance, acquire movement skills appropriate of their age and strengthen their physical limits of endurance. Physical activity also keeps obesity under check.
  • Outdoor play has been found to benefit the memory levels of a child. In fact all round learning skills do show improvement. The vitamin D from sunlight also contributes to memory retention and as such is useful in treating children with attention deficit disorder.
  • Outside play, in various forms as kite flying or sand play or even plain running around develops motor skills and a better sensory motor co-ordination. In addition it provides an opportunity in which children can enjoy their childhood. Here they can mess, yell, storm fight without having a fretting adult near by.
  • Any unstructured learning, in an informal and interesting set up is bound to have more far reaching results. Children who go outside to play regularly do learn a variety of things from the environment. Things such as the colour of leaves. Sound of waves, the feel of a flower, the colour of the sky when it is sunny, the tactile sensations accompanying a walk in the sand, in water or on a hard ground shape up young perceptions and help fire away little imaginations. This ultimately is the blueprint of creativity. Much of childhood experiences colour adult creative expressions and playing outside does give a child a bagful of sensations, perceptions, cognitions and of course memories to rely on as an adult.
  • Playing in a real world also makes a child more capable of meeting up challenges. The natural environment is not the same at all times and this forces a child to think creatively, differently to meet up with these changes. This fosters a sense of calm which often continues into adult life especially while meeting up newer challenges, even changes.
  • Interestingly, learning about the self and the environment may begin outdoors. Children learn about their capabilities, their limits and those of others. All of this is learnt in a positive, non-stressful way. How fast can I run? How high can I swing? Can I go down the slide properly? For pre- schoolers in a neonate phase of understanding the concept of self and identity, a play ground formulates much of their concepts and cognitions.
  • A child who goes out to play encounters social groups and social entities earlier on than a child who desists from going out. This helps in him becoming a social being indulging in various forms of co-operative play.
  • One of the biggest advantages of a child playing outside is that he indulges in ‘free-play’. Free play is a concept that is pushed forth a lot by child psychologists since it gives the child a much needed space - both physical and creative to discover various concepts, about himself and around the world around him. Free play often ends up with a child more skilled in concepts, in the use of language and in superior cognitive skills.
  • Children who play outdoors also have healthier attitudes towards their physical environment. These children often grow up as adults who appreciate the bounties of nature and work towards conserving it. Outdoor activity helps a child to understand his own position in the scheme of nature. He also appreciates the bounties of nature and the way the elements take care of him. All these understandings materialize and concretize when one gets an opportunity to interact with the outside environment.
  • Finally, outdoor activities, if scheduled for the entire family fosters feelings of oneness and togetherness making emotionally secure individuals who put a premium on family and relationships.
  • One of the foremost reasons for sending children out to play is that it helps exhale surplus energy. The surplus theory put forth by many academicians put forth the idea that outdoor activity can help in releasing energy that is pent up in class rooms. For increasing academic performance, this release in certain agreeable ways helps recharge tired batteries and makes them return to academic pursuits in a more reinvigorated way. This theory, while being partially correct in its orientation towards learning is restrictive in its approach as it only focuses on academic learning. Children are bundles of boundless energies which need to be expelled in a non-destructive manner. It is often seen that those children who are not able to go out often turn aggressive or destructive. The home does not give too many opportunities for this release of energy and these children thus do things at home that earn them the wrath of their parents. Thus it is not just for the sake of academics that we need to encourage our children to play outside.

[edit] Health Concerns

There is something fundamentally healthy about going out to play. Children need opportunities to go out and play because it fosters so many developmental patterns. Children need a fun filled, stress free and healthy environment to grow and nurture. Closed doors often breed a host of germs as they cannot dissipate and remain confined. One way to reduce infections is by allowing children get fresh air which is got outdoors. Children develop immunity to minor ailments. They get acclimatized and hence tend to fall sick a lot less. Children are also weaned away from the television and videos and this makes them more active, agile and pro-active at all times in far increased amounts than their counterparts who do not go out as often to play.

[edit] Kinds of outdoorplay that children indulge in

There are various kinds of plays that a child indulges in.

  • Traditional games that are popular are football, cricket, badminton, tennis and other such games that require physical vigour and zest. In addition mountaineering, swimming, running, hide and seek, even going for long walks are outdoor activities that has a huge potential to make the child more active, physically fitter, mentally recharged and psychologically happy. Even better are the benefits if these activities are planned for the whole family.

  • For toddlers, climbing ladders, swinging, riding the cycle and running are games that should be encouraged. However, all this must happen under certain amount of supervision. Motor development should be encouraged to develop but not before its time for it. The development of the brain, nerve and physical strength and stamina should also be a point of consideration.

  • Avenues for Constructive Play are those games that allow the child some power of control and also foster creativity and imagination. Sand play wherein children build objects, play dough, making models from leaves, stones, making mud houses are all examples that are fun, give a child a large canvas to work on to give vent to his inner feelings and urges.

  • Social Play: Play like hide and seek, making a sand castle together, and playing in groups imparts social skills to the child and encourages him to play with others in a more adjusting manner. This eases out competition and makes a child less uptight about winning or losing. They learn to play just for the fun of it.

Sometimes socio dramatic roles allow a chance for expressions and are reflections of cultural milieu that a child belongs to. Such things teach a child a lot about customs, culture and norms that a child learns in a fun way. Like kite flying, especially in certain times of the year, in certain parts of the world do teach a child something about who he is and the customs of his group.

[edit] Outdoor Play-A prerequisite for a Happy Life

Outdoor play is one of the best things that exist in childhood where a child is allowed to be himself and understand the world around him in a fun, unstructured manner. This is a time he can experiment, satisfy his curiosity, manipulate things to create things of his own, can create things he wants and not things that others tell him to do. Here is an area where he can create mess without disapproving his parents; he can sing dance yell to his hearts content; here he makes friend for the first time in his life and looks forward to meeting them each day. The play ground is a place where he forms his identity, his limits, sorts out gender roles, and tries to find his own place in the entire fast moving environment around him.

At times the entire experience, especially in the first few days could be overwhelming. The child may feel insecure with so many other children, each vying for attention. This is where a parent can help matters. Parents need to be the supportive and should encourage the child to participate in the environment around him, even while being in the background. They need to let the child be himself for those moments, waiting to interfere only when he requires it. This is how the child will benefit from outdoor play and become equipped with the necessary social skills that will stand him in good stead in the years to come.

[edit] Policy Implications

Policy makers need to recognize these aspects of outdoor play and make it an area of thrust in their policy decisions. Educational pressures need to be scaled down and this would require more than an attitudinal change; it would require policies that do away with academic pressures. For example do away with the grading system and let children learn in a far more relaxing environment.

On the other hand, policy makers need to tighten up on governance providers so that they ensure that children get their spaces to play and grow. The law should tighten the noose for errant land mafias and builders who are more interested in making a profit making shopping arcade than a ‘play ground’ or a park. Such practices must be desisted because this alone can save the little spaces our children have that they can truly call their own.

See Also Pet Therapy