The great outdoors is good for kids ...

CHILDREN do not play enough outdoors and are not experiencing nature, and this affects their health, a number of studies show.

One of the findings of a British study is telling — more children are admitted to hospitals for injuries sustained falling out of bed than falling off trees. Would a study here have a similar result?

Quite likely.

There’s a strange paradox here. More children today are interested in the natural world than ever before: they watch it on television and visit nature parks with their families, or on school tours.

“But far fewer are experiencing it directly, on their own or with their friends, and that’s what counts: this is about more than nature,” says Stephen Moss, naturalist, broadcaster and author.

Other experts talk about a ‘nature deficit disorder’ arising from young people’s over-use of information technology and media, such as television, to the detriment of first-hand experience of the outdoors and nature.

Those of us who grew up before television, computer games and the internet became all-pervasive, spent more time than today’s children in the outdoors. At this time of the year, we would traipse the fields to pick wild flowers, such as bluebells and buttercups, for May altars, in the home and school.

All youngsters walked to school in those days. Along the road, they would be on the look-out for birds’ nests and would stop to listen to the call of the cuckoo to pinpoint its location: they would watch in wonder as larks remained suspended high in the air.

There are stories now of children not being able to distinguish between a crow and magpie, for instance. In yesteryear, children would have known all the common birds.

They also spent time fishing in local streams, learning about fish and taking in everything that happened on riverbanks and surrounding fields.

There was a liberating sense that you had the freedom of the countryside, which, of course, came with a warning to avoid fields which had bulls in them. Urban children could roam the streets, estates and alleyways and enjoy what was to be seen in parks and open spaces.

If you look at old photographs of children at play, you will notice they were generally taken outdoors, because that was where they spent most of their free time and where they were happiest. You will also notice how they were probably dirty, with mud on their hands, legs and faces? Nowadays, some parents are afraid their children will get dirty. At one time, however, there was folksy belief that getting dirty was actually healthy and that it built up children’s immunity.

In any case, being dirty was never a problem: in fact, that’s the way you were expected to be if you were a normal, healthy youngster.

The Irish Wildlife Trust, in welcoming the publication of the Framework for Sustainable Development in Ireland (FSDI), called for greater support for environmental education. Research has shown that engagement with the outdoors is hugely beneficial to children and enhances their appreciation of nature and the environment.

Television and the internet aside, one of the biggest obstacles to children being allowed out these days is the fear among parents of abduction. Statistics, however, show that children are far more at risk of coming to harm from traffic on the roads.

A growing list of scientific studies indicates that time spent in free play in the natural world has a big impact on health, and not just on obesity. Dozens of studies from around the world show regular time in the outdoors produces significant improvements in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning ability, creativity and mental, and psychological and emotional well-being.

A study at the University of Essex has found a mere five minutes of ’ “green exercise” can produce rapid improvements in mental wellbeing and self-esteem, with the greatest benefits experienced by the young.

Free and unstructured play in the outdoors boosts problem-solving skills, focus and self-discipline. Socially, it improves cooperation, flexibility, and self-awareness. A study published by the American Medical Association had similar results.

But, the lives of children today are very controlled and organised, with limited opportunities for free play. Many are no longer left out without adult supervision. Every community in the country seems to be demanding a children’s playground, without no thought of availing of the natural facilities all around them.

If you ask anyone of 45, or more, what their best memories of childhood play are, it’s odds-on that the majority will say they come from days in the outdoors, and with other children rather than adults. A British study has shown that 21% of today’s children regularly play outside, compared with 71% of their parents.

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