The world we live in is a beautiful place, and we can often take it for granted. With long days at work and school followed by hectic home lives, many of us don’t spend as much time outdoors as we should. Of course, there are plenty of reasons why we might spend less time in nature, but is it really worth making the effort to get out into the fresh air?
Most parents are generally aware of the benefits of getting outdoors. We all know it feels good to soak up the sunshine, we enjoy the views on a woodland walk and we like to stretch our legs after hours spent behind a desk - but do we really understand the value of spending time outside?
For our children, one of the biggest advantages of time outdoors - aside from the well known benefits of physical activity - is a change of stimulation. As humans, we have a natural tendency to crave new things, and reacting to those new things helps us to develop and grow, particularly as children.
Although video games and social media do give children some stimulation, it’s a much smaller amount than they’d get if they were outside. When you’re indoors, you typically see the same four walls the whole day and nothing much changes except the need to turn on a light when it gets dark. Outside, however, everything is changing all the time. The trees look different as the seasons change and the sky changes with the weather. Plus, children get to experience lots of different noises, like birdsong, traffic and dogs barking, for example. On top of that, getting outdoors allows them to feel a greater sensory experience, because there are more tactile stimulants available outside. When you’re indoors you rarely feel the breeze on your skin or the warmth of the sunshine. Above all else, the indoors is well known for not having many puddles you can jump into in your wellies.
Getting outdoors is also great for social stimulation. Staying at home means you’re most likely to be spending time with the same people 24/7. Although families are important, kids can really benefit from interacting with as wide a range of people as possible. And while virtual social experiences are a step in the right direction, physical ones are better. Compare sending a text to talking to someone in person. The latter gives you extra physical, visual, auditory and even tactile stimulation that you wouldn’t get if there were a screen and physical distance between you and the other person.
Making sure your child gets enough time outside is hard. There’s a lot standing in your way, from huge swathes of time being taken up by commitments like work and school to the alluring call of the internet keeping us indoors. Often we don’t want our children to go out alone, especially if we live in a busy area with lots of traffic and other hazards. And on top of that, there are a lot of debates over whether or not there is a ‘right way’ to spend time outside. Is a walk to the shops enough, or is it crucial to be in a green space?
All of this can get in the way of the real goal, which is not to spend ‘enough’ time outside, whatever that means, but to spend more time outside. If you’re getting tied up in knots wondering if an outdoor experience is the ‘right kind’ of time outside, the best thing to do is to consider its value against spending time indoors rather than against other outdoor activities. Yes, a five mile hike is probably going to be better for your child than a five minute trip down to the post office - but they’re both better than spending that five minutes sitting around getting no exercise or stimulation indoors.
It can be difficult to get kids outdoors, especially if they’re used to spending their weekends indoors, so don’t feel pressured to spend hours and hours outside immediately. Aim to help your children enjoy the time they spend outdoors and they’ll naturally want to do it more - and this is a habit that can last a lifetime.
So now that we’ve established that getting outside is a great idea, how do you actually do it? Well, it’s a good idea to get kids walking to school to boost their regular outdoor exercise. Already, that’s 10 walks every week in term time - and you can build on that by encouraging them to pop down to the shops with you on weekends. But what about actual outdoor activities?
It can be easy to think that the outdoors is dull and boring, so one way to encourage your children to look for the exciting things is to… well, look for them! You could stage a treasure or Easter egg hunt in your garden for little ones to get them looking more closely at the environment around them. For older children, consider getting a spotter’s guide or similar book so that you can help them identify and learn about the world around them. Children love to feel smart, and marching into school on Monday morning with a range of facts about creepy crawlies, for example, is a great way to nurture their curiosity while encouraging time outside.
Puddle jumping isn’t strictly a requirement of spending time outdoors, but it is a lot of fun - especially for younger children. Pop on a raincoat and some wellies and get over to the nearest forest or woodland so you can spend some time getting close to nature. This is also a good way to remind your children that the outdoors isn’t only fun when the sun’s out - just be careful to wrap them up warm.
Getting outside for a few hours is one thing, but building a habit takes a little longer than that. Fortunately, one way to encourage your children to get outside again and again is to get them invested in something that takes time. For example, planting a garden of veggies or flowers will mean time spent pruning, planting, wedding and more - not to mention the sense of achievement they’ll get come harvest time. Other options include building something together, using pavement chalk to engage their artistic side, and starting a collection of pretty rocks!
There are many, many more activities you can do with children outside, but the most important thing of all is to do something you and your kids enjoy. Remember, children often stay indoors because that’s where their hobbies and interests are, so don’t berate them for it. Help them to find interests outdoors and they’ll naturally begin to like it more and more.