A place to squelch a little mud under the nails. A place to escape routine, explore, muck around. The outdoors: we sense how it enlivens us. But can it weave more magic than we know?
Environmental Psychologist Kathleen Bagot says there are a plethora of proven benefits from outdoor play, compared to a ‘built-play’ setting.
Just for starters, the physical activity in the natural environment yields stronger physiological benefits than built-play settings, like lowering blood pressure and reducing the body’s stress levels.
I’m sold already, but we’ve only scratched the surface. Play in the natural place offers physical benefits like better motor skills, balance and fewer sick days, cognitive benefits like better attention, concentration and self-discipline, plus the stronger social benefit of access to adults. “Even the type of children’s play in green space is much more creative,” Dr Bagot says.
“Yet, adults and kids are starved of outdoor time,” Dr Bagot says. “They are missing out on a rich and complex experience which appeals to all of our senses.”
A dramatic one-generational shift from outdoor to indoor-play is unearthed in a recent study.* Over seven-in-ten adults played outside daily as kids, but today that’s dwindled to one-in-ten kids playing outside - once a week or less. Over 60% of the adults climbed trees as kids (the survey did not ask them if they still do!) but less than 20% of their kids do.
“Nothing gives me more joy than knowing kids can go out into a place and pick up a rock or climb a tree without getting into trouble,” Dr Bagot says.
Parents agree. Most parents surveyed saw outdoor-play as a physical and motor skill builder, imagination booster and outlet for reducing stress. Trouble is, they are too fearful (60%) and too busy (80%) to play outside with their kids.*
“If we lose green-time we risk raising kids who are not capable of looking after themselves and developing their own sense of resilience,” Dr Bagot says
Her study of children in 14 Melbourne schools found the higher the level of vegetation in the school yard, the better children’s classroom attention scores after playing in that environment, which in turn predicted higher academic scores.
Our capacity to ‘direct attention’ comes down to shutting out distracting or irrelevant stimuli, letting the ‘right’ information be pulled-in from around us.
But this directing of attention - ‘grabbing only the good stuff’ - needs effort. So restoring our attention-capacity is crucial, Dr Bagot explains. It gives us the ability to concentrate - crucial in everyday tasks and life effectiveness.
Here’s where green-power for our brain, Attention Restoration Theory (ART), comes in. ART asserts people can concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature.
Restoring our attention capacity is crucial and restorative experiences can be ‘anything and everything,’ Dr Bagot says. But an environment or activity needs four features to enable it to fully restore our attention, Dr Bagot explains, even though partial-restoration can start with just one feature, like just being away from chores or work.
Being away – physically or psychologically – from the must-do parts of your daily life, like chores or work, is the first restoring feature. Extent is the second – the environment must offer a sense of a whole-other-world – a totally absorbing activity, like a visit to the zoo.
The third feature is fascination. “This is stimuli that attract people, keep them from getting bored and don’t need effortful directed attention,” Dr Bagot explains. Fascination alone does not offer a complete restorative experience. Attention-holding stimuli like an accident, a fire burning out of control, or a video game, offer ‘hard fascination’, but do not refresh us, Dr Bagot explains. While nature is ‘soft fascination’ because it’s easy, the hard fascination providers, because of their intensity (especially the violent) do not refresh us. “We often want to do things that are not good for us, especially the hard fascination,” Dr Bagot says.
The final restorative feature is compatibility – the environment must support the activity as well as the inclinations of the person, and allow the things they want to do to be done, like finding the right book and the right spot to curl up and read.
Once the brain has a dose of these four features, it will be back to its vital ‘resting level’, Dr Bagot says, with the ability to concentrate fully on the next task.
"Green-space is more effective - and efficient - in restoring our ability to pay attention than any other environment or activity,” Dr Bagot says. Other leisure activities do bring the brain back to relaxation but not to the vital ‘resting level’, she says.
Yet people are more inclined to suggest others to go out in nature, than to do it themselves, because it is effortful, Dr Bagot says. Adults surveyed commonly advised a walk in the local park as a pick-up for a tired friend, yet for their own ‘restoration’, said they would go to dinner or watch a movie.
“I ask people to just give it a go - two or three times a week go for a walk in the bush or just anywhere outside each day, for two weeks,” she says. “They’ll tell me they feel fantastic, so I tell them to ‘remember the feeling, so the next time you are sitting on the couch ready to watch TV, remember you can actually walk around the neighbourhood, or pack an afternoon tea and stop somewhere on the way home!’”
There seems to be a widening gap in our lives between what we have to do, and what we want to do, Dr Bagot says. “Sometimes it is a case of putting on another pair of socks or a raincoat and just getting out there.”
But virtual-nature can weave a spell too, even if it’s minus the physical and social benefits. “Only looking can be enough, there is work that has been done in dentist surgeries where paintings of nature and fish tanks reduced anxiety levels significantly,” Dr Bagot says.
“It’s not that the built environment is bad, it’s the absence of nature that is,” Dr Bagot says.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, said for eons, humans spent most of their formative years in nature, but within few decades this has changed radically. “Healing the broken bond between our young and nature is in everyone’s self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demand it, but also because our mental, physical and spiritual health depend on it,” he said.
Enter Melbourne teacher, bush-playgroup facilitator and mother-of three, Narelle Debenham (who supplied the above image). She inspires families to embrace nature play and bring ‘green-power’ into their lives. Nature-play enhances a child’s creativity, imagination, teamwork, co-operation, problem solving and leadership skills, Narelle says. “They also experience a sense of wonder”, an important motivator for life-long learning, she says.
Narelle facilitates educational, weekly ‘free play’ nature-experiences for two to five year-olds and their families. I’ve read comments from some of the parents who say they love the chance to explore nature in the safety and in the company of others and slow down their busy lives.
But the kids comments are a treat: “I love this fun in the sun”, “We get lots of time to play and get dirty and finding things to keep is fun (leaves, sticks, feathers),” “I saw koala poo and smelt it”, “I tried to catch a fish and the stuff on the hook was stinky”, “We laugh a lot, I am allowed to do lots of stuff.”
I can see why Narelle is so keen to help kids find these experiences! And why she insists that when outdoor-play and nature are an integral part of kids’ lives, they’re well on the way to a healthy and happy future.
Richard Louv said recently that photography was a carrot for kids to head outdoors, in much the same way fishing gear has been an inducement for many.
“Ultimately, we are well-served by whatever gizmo helps get us into the outdoors if we know when to put that device down —cameras included — and when to simply use our inborn senses to soak up the nuances of our surroundings.”
One of Narelle’s three boys’ favourite activities was creating new homes for creatures, then waiting to see what ‘moves in’.
Weigh down a flat piece of cardboard in a backyard-corner, wait a couple of weeks, then carefully lift the cardboard to see what’s moved in. Worms, slaters and earwigs are the most commonly found bugs, but you never know what might appear.
A magnifying glass makes the project even more fun.
For some extra education, use the creatures that have moved in as a literacy ‘hook’ and borrow books from the local library that “star” the creatures.
• www.naturedkids.com - Narelle Debenham is an environmental early-childhood facilitator of educational‘free-play’ nature experiences which can be adapted for use in any community.
• www.planetark.org - Planet Ark is a not-for-profit environmental organisation which commissioned the childhood-nature interaction study*, released in 2011.
• www.childrenandnature.org – a network designed to encourage and support the people and organisations working internationally to reconnect children with nature.
• Community gardens: www.communitygarden.org.au
• Girl Guides: www.girlguides.org.au
• Landcare: www.juniorlandcare.com.au
• Surf Lifesaving: www.sls.com.au
• Scouts: www.scouts.com.au