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A natural connection

Free play outdoors stimulates imaginations and enhances a child's well-being

Free play outdoors stimulates imaginations and enhances a child's well-being
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FortWhyte Alive

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2011

It's only natural.

Most of us over the age of 30 grew up with parents who had no difficulty telling their children to "Go play outside!" Some even recall their parents adding in the comment, "And don't come back til supper!"

Things have changed, to be sure. Parents no longer feel comfortable sending their children outdoors to play on their own; residential streets aren't filled with kids skipping rope, playing tag or hide and seek. Instead the vast majority are "plugged in" to the Internet, instant messaging, playing video games or watching television.

The results of this shift in lifestyles is clear. Children and adolescents have never in history been so physically inactive, obese or prone to depression and anxiety. Certainly there are a number of factors at play, however, there is a growing movement of experts and caregivers who are concerned about this shift and are setting out to make some positive changes.

So what is it about being outdoors and engaging with nature that is so important in childhood? Study after study has shown that children who spend more time outdoors and interacting with nature benefit by having increased opportunities for movement, creativity, problem-solving, empathy and stress reduction, as well as increased imagination and enhanced ability to focus, which is linked to better performance in school.

Unstructured, outdoor free play is of particular value to young children. This is in sharp contrast to the structured sports and programmed activities that many children are involved in these days. Free play outdoors allows children to practise developing a variety of life skills, such as how to work together to accomplish a goal like building a fort. Free play outdoors stimulates imaginations and encourages children to think beyond rules and scores; taking the time to think things through, try alternatives, solve problems, build confidence and enhance resilience. Experts also point to the rich opportunity to use all of our senses when outdoors: seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and touching the wonders of nature.

Of course, being outdoors encourages all of us to be more physically active through walking, running, skipping, cycling, climbing or any other form of movement. Increased physical activity lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, lowers body fat, improves bone and muscle strength and lowers stress.

Many families are living with the challenge of raising children who are anxious, moody or have a difficult time focusing. There is some evidence that "nature therapy" is helpful to some children by enhancing their ability to focus, feel calm and be in control of their emotions and behaviour.

The Nature Action Collaborative for Children is a worldwide movement that is committed to re-connecting children with nature. There is a group of local advocates of the movement who have formed the Manitoba chapter with memberships that include early childhood educators, naturalists, teachers and others. Their enthusiasm and commitment to the cause has spawned a variety of creative projects such as a two-week outdoor childcare program. Staff of the program have embraced the Norwegian saying, "There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing," and parents send the children to the program fully prepared to be outside all day. One staff member of the outdoor program marvels at the children's love of the neighbourhood creek. "Our kids wade barefoot in the cool waters . . . they climb the trees . . . they catch frogs and float makeshift boats down its small rapids. It's a magical place."

Richard Louv, journalist and author of the book "Last Child in the Woods," first published in 2005, coined the provocative term "nature-deficit disorder" to describe what he encountered in his research on children across the United States and the effects of their disconnection with nature. The research that was gathered for the book not only highlights the benefits to children, it goes on to say that children's engagement with the outdoors is actually necessary for their physical and emotional development. The latest edition of the book describes hundreds of actions that families and communities can take to rebuild our connection to the natural world.

So where do we begin the process of re-connecting with nature? How can we provide our children with rich opportunities to explore nature and reap the benefits that the outdoors offers?

Begin by taking some small steps. Don't let the cooler weather of fall stop your family from enjoying the outdoors. At first, parents and caregivers may need to encourage and support children as they try new things outside. Go for a walk in the neighbourhood and be sure to stop and notice the details. What kind of tree is this? Look at the colours of the leaves, listen to that interesting bird call and feel the coolness of the grass.

Even urban centres have pockets of nature if one takes the time to look. Depending on the children's ages, you can work up to taking longer hikes or increase the challenge by trying something new like canoeing.

If you are not sure where to begin, explore outdoor spaces such as the Assiniboine Forest, FortWhyte Alive, and city and provincial parks such as the Living Prairie Museum or Little Mountain Park. Why not check out the exciting new Nature Playground at Assiniboine Park featuring pathways, tunnels, sand and water play areas, rolling hills and a lookout crow's nest?

Some of these sites have programs or staff who can help introduce you to the great outdoors in a fun way, or check out their websites for ideas. Always dress for the weather, wear proper footwear and bring a few supplies such as a jacket, water and a few snacks so that the nature trekkers are comfortable and happy.

Remember that the adventure does not need to be structured. Lie on a blanket and look at the clouds to see what shapes you can make out, climb a sturdy old tree and use it as a lookout or dig a small hole and look for earthworms. Just be open to the possibilities and enjoy the experience with the children in your life. It's an inexpensive way to have fun and create stories and memories, while enhancing your health and wellbeing.

Laurie McPherson is a mental health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: September / October 2011

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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