Those of us who grew up some decades ago remember that most of our play was in the outdoors. It was an era of relative innocence and people were blissfully unaware of many dangers of which everyone is now conscious.
With television, the internet and changes in so many other aspects of life, today’s children spend much less time outdoors. We had the freedom of the fields to roam and observe nature at close quarters, be it birds nesting, foxes prowling or cows simply grazing. It offered a far better picture of natural life than could ever gleaned from a screen or a book.
We often hear nowadays that children are happier indoors. That’s a myth. They’d prefer to be running around outside, if allowed to do so by adults — one of the key findings of research commissioned by the UCC law department on reconnecting children with the outdoors.
In today’s world, parents’ anxieties about their offspring’s safety are understandable, while outdoor spaces are not as available or as unrestricted as formerly. Medics have long recognised the benefits for children’s health from having greater access to the outdoors, but there isn’t enough support for teachers and schools to make this a reality for all.
The study, conducted on behalf of the Heritage Council, talks to children and stresses the importance of listening to them. Schools have ‘unmatched potential’ as places to nurture children’s links with nature, but they must be supported in a way in which the outdoors is seen as a normal part of school life.
The changing nature of children’s lives is a major concern and the child-nature connection is under serious threat, according to the study which is detailed in special 20th anniversary edition of Heritage Outlook.
“Certain groups, including children with disabilities, face particular challenges in this regard. The children that participated in the research made clear that all things being equal, they prefer to play outdoors rather than indoors,’’ it says.
And they relish the freedom of exploring and playing in an unstructured way, though the location, weather and friends all help to determine whether outdoor play is attractive. The study says more attention ought to be paid to children’s use of the outdoors and the natural environment. Schools should be encouraged to educate children about their connection with nature and let them play outside.
Meanwhile, the Heritage Council hopes the UCC research by Ursula Kilkelly, Helen Lynch, Angela O’Connell, Alice Moore, Sarah Field and Ulli Falcini will inform government departments and organisations working in areas of children’s welfare.