There is this hanging vine in a rainforest we visit that bears the shape of a swing. It has been there for years, the pure essence of a wild playground. Through time, the vine has started to fall under the weight of gravity and small children and is touching the ground. To our surprise this week the vine was now propped high in the canopy about 1.5 metres up, almost out of reach. I was waiting for my six-year-old daughter to ask to be propped up into the seat of the vine. Instead she surveyed the area, tugged hard on the loose vine suspended like a vertical rope, shimmied up like a ninja warrior until her leg could swing up and hook over the branch so she was able to straddle the swing. She didn’t hesitate: shimmy, shimmy, lift, pull and up she sat, almost two metres off the ground, smile from ear to ear. She often gets comments and remarks about her fearlessness, her agility and confidence. She rarely loses her balance. She navigates the world with determination, awareness, discernment and grit. And this moment was no different. I attribute all these abilities and skills to the amount of time she spends in nature.
We spend a lot of time outside with my children being the lucky beneficiaries of our Forest School programs and Nature Playgroup sessions. Being outside, playing freely with other children is something that has been one of the defining ‘educational’ choices we have made during this early phase of life. However, this is not the case for so many children, which is becoming increasingly obvious as we engage with children of all ages through our programs. Free outdoor play is not part of the childhood landscape as it once was, particularly as children get older. Climbing a low tree and wading in the creek is such a novelty, and the joy that is exuded from the children that visit us in the forest is both heart-warming and alarming in equal measure. There have been many moments where I have sat with immense gratitude at being able to prioritise nature play for my own children. They live in the mud, the dirt, the cold water, the rocks, the trees, the insects, the rain, the wind – all the things that can make time outside uncomfortable or hard. But it is a reminder that so many children do not experience this beyond the odd special outdoor adventure. This is not their childhood, it is an anomaly. And it made me realise how utterly necessary Nature Play is for all of us.
When I look around, I see messages everywhere about how we should raise our children. Through our weekly commitment to our Nature Playgroup, my children have had the privilege of a childhood that prioritised self-directed play in nature. For me, I like to keep things simple and immersing ourselves in self-directed nature play is the perfect way for my children to get everything they need right now: sunshine, fresh air, freedom, time, space, friendship, play. Dedicating time to being outside (especially through the adventures of our nomadic playgroup) promotes healthy sensory and motor development and is the antidote to time spent in front of screens and hours of sitting indoors. Playgroup means that we get outside more, especially on those days when we look out the window and a million excuses spring to mind as to why it’s a better idea to stay inside. In making a conscious choice to show up each and every week I have shown my children how important it is for them to be free in the wild and to be comfortable with the times that being outside is ‘uncomfortable’.
The great news is spending time outside is a powerful action that can provide the following:
- Strengthening of muscles and bones through active play
- Strengthening of the immune system – increasing blood flow, oxygen intake and activating the lymphatic system
- Exposure to Vitamin D which is essential for bone strength, teeth enamel and immunity
- Helps to alleviate depression and anxiety
- Sharpens senses
- Increases psychological resilience
- Enhances co-operation and conflict resolutions skills
- Enhances risk assessment and decision making skills
- Improves self esteem
- Stimulates problem solving behaviour
- Improves independence and autonomy
Whilst we try not to put too much emphasis on the negative consequences of reduced outdoor active play, we need to be aware of the risks when we consider how important outdoor play is for children. Some of the trends we are starting to see due to the reduced amount of time children are spending in nature include:
- Children’s inability to play by themselves
- Decreased creativity and ability to think for themselves
- Higher percentage of childhood obesity and diabetes
- Increased levels of anxiety and depression
- Increased screen time
- Limited ability to engage in imaginative play
- Decreased proprioception and vestibular senses
- Decrease in spatial awareness leading to clumsiness and falls
- Prolonged illness (never ending colds)
- Low tolerance for being dirty, sandy, muddy, being in the rain and feeling cold or hot
- Increase diagnosis of myopia (short-sightedness)
- Decreased ability to recover emotionally from minor injuries (trips and falls)
- Disconnection with and fear of being in nature
It may seem like something that we don’t need to invest in. After all, nature is all around us and you can take your children to these spaces for free whenever you’d like. But do you? I know prior to playgroup that I didn’t. Do you immerse yourself and your children in all nature’s glory on a regular basis, or do you (like I did) default to the local playground? When you sign up for Playgroup you make a promise to your family that you will prioritise time in nature and all the benefits it offers with a group of families who live it, and love it, like you do.
We live in one of the most varied landscapes in the world. The locations of each playgroup have been carefully selected for their beauty and have something for every age and stage to ignite their curiosity and joy. We have tried to find places that capture the essence of our wild spaces – the ocean, the mountains, the bush, the creeks and the waterways.
We absolutely love our playgroups. Each of us that facilitate them will attest that it is one of our favourite days of the week. But we need to keep the momentum going. Whilst small groups are intimate, the more people that join the nature play movement, the more joy we can bring to our children and community with dedicated time and space to play. We can then help make nature play spaces more available to children and help to make changes in the way that we see play in educational settings become a priority because it is SO IMPORTANT!
We would love to see more of our local families coming along to our playgroups. It can take a few weeks for yourself and your child to get into the rhythm of our sessions (the time to explore, participate in activities, become familiar with the songs and stories). So grab a raincoat and gumboots, a picnic rug, a bag full of old spare clothes and a towel and join us each week as we make a promise to our children that we won’t let this fast-paced, tech-heavy world convince us that we don’t need nature. We need it now more than ever…
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