Life in lockdown has been challenging for everyone, all the more for those of us with limited or no outdoor space at home. With guidelines stipulating only one outing a day to exercise, we’ve been dearly missing opportunities to stretch our legs, breathe some fresh air and, for little ones especially, blow off some steam.
It’s long been established that spending time outdoors, exploring and experiencing the natural world, can benefit our physical and mental health. For children, connecting with nature has a hugely positive impact on their development in many ways, particularly their inclination and ability to learn.
As parents, most of us feel that our children spend less time playing outside than we ourselves did, but it’s hard to know how to tackle the problem. Many of us don’t have our own outdoor space at home and in urban areas it’s not always easy to find a suitable green space in which to play – and venturing to an external space brings a whole new set of concerns: safety, toilet facilities, sufficient shade.
This period of enforced lockdown has brought about an increased emphasis on the digital world but, we’d suggest, also presents an opportunity to ‘reset’ and cultivate a new enthusiasm and connection with nature for our families – improving our physical and mental health and rebuilding our communities with a greater sense of kindness, generosity and connection.
What does outdoor play do for our children?
Confidence, curiosity and a willingness to experiment
At Maggie & Rose we believe that unstructured play is crucial to a little one’s development. When allowed time and space to use the environment in a way that is meaningful to them, children are building their own worlds, testing what they already know and seeing what happens when they do one thing or the other. Outdoor environments offer endless sensory stimulation and possibilities for play without any need for ‘setting up’ or special equipment. The diversity of the natural landscape and its loose parts are all little ones need to inspire experimental play. Little ones will set their own challenges and work to achieve them, solving any problems they encounter and adapting along the way.
Outdoor play also provides opportunities to understand risks and learn to assess them. The natural world is not risk-free and little ones will start to appreciate this (probably through a few minor bumps and bruises!) and become more resilient and responsible for their own safety.
Creativity and imagination
Just as the opportunities to test and experiment are unlimited in nature, so too are the possibilities for creative and imaginative play. Objects that you find outdoors, such as pinecones, sticks, or leaves, don’t have set or obvious uses for children, unlike household objects, so they can become anything the child can imagine. When playing in nature little ones are exposed to brand new sights, smells and textures each time, opening their minds to a sense of wonder and possibility.
In a natural environment, little ones are surrounded by other living things, and will start to understand that life needs different things to survive, whether it be watering and feeding or using kind, gentle hands. By noticing what happens to the living things around them they are learning cause and effect, and a sense of responsibility, particularly if they can nurture plants in a garden or insects in a terrarium.
When outdoor spaces are shared, little ones will learn to respect the environment around them and treat it kindly, both for the creatures that make their home there and for others using the space. They are also more likely to meet their peers playing in a communal outside space, giving them opportunities to interact and collaborate in their play and learn positive social habits.
Improved physical health
It’s fairly obvious that outdoor spaces give more opportunities for physical activity than inside spaces, and if you’re lucky, you are able to access a space with different physical challenges like uneven heights, slopes or surfaces that little ones will need to learn to navigate. Not only will children benefit from improved gross motor skills, coordination and balance from negotiating these spaces, but evidence shows that spending time in nature also has benefits for cardiorespiratory fitness and even immunity.
A calmer mind and a greater sense of focus and attention
Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory suggests that spending time in nature helps to clear the noise in our heads and restore our attention and focus to what’s around us. Studies have shown that playing outside can improve cortisol patterns in children: they become less stressed and more resilient. Similarly, spending time in nature can help to remove distractions and allow children to concentrate, not just while they are outside but also when they return to a more cognitive task.
It’s important to note that children can be put under unnecessary pressure by ‘over-scheduling’. It’s a misconception to think that spare time must always be spent in structured activities, whether that be classes or organised sports: letting little ones explore nature with no limits or direction is the perfect antidote to this.
What are the benefits for grown-ups?
Crucially, just as it does for children, spending time in nature helps us to silence the distractions in our minds and re-focus our attention on what’s important to us. Research has shown that nature inspires emotions of awe and gratitude, and after the challenging period that we are all still navigating, we think it’s vital to be grateful for the blessings that we have. We can see this as an opportunity to move away from an ‘always on, always doing’ culture and remind ourselves that our time doesn’t always have to be productive – we can allow ourselves to simply walk through a park, skip a stone in a pond or just lie back and enjoy the sunshine. Pausing to mindfully appreciate our surroundings can take us out of the whirlwind of our busy everyday lives and remind us to enjoy the moment.
We found this article by Kristophe Green & Dacher Keltner to be particularly inspiring as it draws on research to show how, when we reconnect with nature, our positive emotions increase which leads to kinder and more compassionate behaviour. We’ve all seen acts of kindness in the community during the lockdown, from clapping for our carers to delivering home-made food to neighbours in need. If we continue to connect with nature on a regular basis, it will help us to feel less anxious, more grounded and more positive which, in turn, will sustain a sense of openness and connection with others in our community – which could be one of the greatest outcomes of this devastating pandemic.
Reconnecting with nature is simple - take a look at our top tips here