(MENAFN - The Conversation) What if there was a simple, inexpensive and fun way to address some of the major challenges facing humanity today. What if it could help improve children's health, development and well-being?
Imagine a solution that could stem thecurrent epidemics of obesity , anxiety anddepressionaffecting children and youth today. Imagine that this solution could also promote brain health, creativity and academic achievement and prepare our children for therapidly-changing work force .
Along the way it could reduce incidence of allergies, asthma and otherimmunity challengesandimprove eye health . It couldfoster a culture of environmental stewardship and sustainabilityand help build the health of cities — promoting neighbourliness andfeelings of community connection .
Imagine that this intervention could also help countries meet their targets for many of theUnited Nations Sustainable Development Goals , such as the goals of Good Health and Well-being, Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education, Decent Work and Economic Growth and Climate Action.
This isn't an expensive intervention, or one that parents have to force their children to do — like homework or eating their vegetables. Rather than dreading it,children report being at their happiestwhen doing it and they seek ways to keep at it for as long as possible.
What is this fix-all simple solution? Playing outside.
The magic of outdoor play
Many of us havefond memories of childhoods spent outside , hanging out with friends in our neighbourhoods, parks and wild places, making up the rules as we went along, with minimal (if any) adult supervision.
Children need the time, space and freedom to play outdoors.
We need only reflect on our own play memories to realize how valuable these experiences can be and how they can shape our lifelong health and development. The research is now catching up to our intuitions, recognizing thevast and diverse benefits of outdoor play .
Why kids need risk, fear and excitement in play
Playing outside is not the same as playing inside. There areunique benefits of being in the outdoors , particularly in nature, that don't come as readily indoors. When children are allowed to play the way they want to play in stimulating environments,they move more, sit less and play longer .
They get their hands in the dirt and areexposed to microbes that help them build their immunity . They make their own goals and figure out the steps to attain those goals, helping them buildexecutive function skills . Theylearn , build resilience anddevelop their social skills , learn how tomanage risksand keep themselves safe. Their eyes get the exercise they need to help combatshort-sightedness .
We are rediscovering the magic of outdoor play. Governments see it as a way ofgetting kids activeand averting the obesity crisis. Schools andearly childhood centressee it as a way of promoting academic and socio-emotional learning. Corporations see it as a way ofpreparing children for the jobs of the futurethat will focus on creativity, empathy and connection with others. Children just see it as a way of having fun and feeling free!
Adults must let go of their fears
There are three key ingredients to supporting outdoor play:time, space and freedom .
Kids need time to be able to play outside. In schools, that meansrecess policies that get kids outside every day , finding opportunities to use the outdoors for learning and limiting homework. At home, that means laying aside screens and limiting scheduled structured activities.
Risky play teaches children to keep themselves safe.
Kids also needhigh quality outdoor spacesto play in. That doesn't necessarily mean expensive playground equipment. It meansspaces where all children feel welcome , regardless of their abilities and backgrounds, that they can make their own and that also have loose parts (for example sticks, stones, water and cardboard boxes) they can use and let their imagination shape the play.
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In cities, that means being prepared for and allowing play to happen everywhere, not just parks and playgrounds. We need to designinclusive and child-friendly citieswhere kids feel welcome everywhere and can easily access nature.
Finally, freedom: the biggest barrier to children's ability to play the way they want to play is adults. We need tolet go of our excessive fears of injuries and kidnappingand realize that the benefits of kids getting out to play far outweigh the risks. My lab developed arisk reframing tool for parents and caregivers to help them on this journey .
Support the children in your life
Helping support children's outdoor play can be as simple as opening the front door. It doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. If we all do our bit, we can help bring back this crucial activity that should be part of all children's daily lives, regardless of age, cultural background, gender or ability.
Playing outdoors reduces incidence of allergies, asthma and other immunity challenges.
(Unsplash/Matthew T Rader),CC BY
There are lots oftools to help you get started , whether you're a parent, caregiver,educator , city planner or a neighbour.
I would encourage you to consider one simple and attainable thing you are going to do today to help get the child or children in your life get out to play.
Improved executive functioning