Often the reason most of us remember our childhood years with great fondness is because of the carefree days we spent in free play. But childhood experiences serve much more than mere happy memories that warm the cockles of the heart. They assist in a child’s overall development and go a long way in shaping their adult personalities. Especially outdoor activities help to develop multiple aspects of a child’s character. From socialization and problem-solving skills, to tacking real life challenges – children learn valuable life lessons through contact with the natural world and interaction with fellow children outside the constraining realms of adult supervision.
At the very mention of outdoor play, the image of a wide open space or a playground with a colourful jungle gym, slides and swings comes to the mind where gleeful children run about unbridled, interact with peer, argue, have fun, laugh and cry in tandem. These real-life experiences satisfy many of their childhood curiosities and teach children lessons in life that cannot be replicated in any other social setup, not even a secure school or home environment. An article by Harvard Health Publishing highlights the contrast between children from past generations who spent a considerable amount of their free time on outdoor activities and the children of this age with hardly any unstructured time since more emphasis is laid on scheduled activities. It goes on to emphasise how imperative outdoor activities and contact with nature is for children.
But with limited access to such open play areas and as children find themselves confined and restrained indoors due to the current pandemic, physical activity is on the decline. It then doesn’t come as a surprise that childhood obesity, already a major concern among children worldwide, is only going to worsen. For good health in both adults and children, The World Health Organization and other similar authorities recommend regular physical activities with at least an hour everyday specifically for children. Besides the physical limitations of obesity, it affects a child’s self-confidence and body-image too, making them targets of bullying and depression. To ensure a healthy adult lifestyle, the habit must begin in childhood with ample opportunity for the body to burn excess calories through active play like running, climbing and jumping. These activities not only promote body strength, muscle coordination and motor skills, but also help the brain to develop vital sense of direction, speed and height.
John Lubbock has very rightly said, “Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach of us more than we can learn from books.” The outdoors is a multisensory world and when a child connects with the outdoor elements, all their vital senses are heightened. The sounds of birds, the wind, the traffic, other children, touch of the soil, the feel of the warm sun, wet touch of rain and cold wind are exciting things children must be allowed to feel and discover on their own. A recent study in Finland published in ‘Science Advances,’ journal suggested that when the outdoors are greener, it also helps to boost the child’s body immunity.
A large body of research work suggests outdoor play has a huge impact on a child’s overall development with multiple evidence that free outdoor play promotes cognitive, social, physical and emotional development. The value of the outdoors has been widely recognized by many educators across the world, including our very own Rabindranath Tagore who advocated intimacy with nature and social engagement, that also included ‘method of nature.’ Method of nature is based on the principle of trial and error as a means of learning where through experience, discovery, wonder and curiosity children learn life lessons and to apply them in practical situations. Nature is truly unpredictable and the spontaneous, open-ended play allows children to interpret and understand these phenomena at their own pace.
The significance of outdoor play also includes a vital social atmosphere, an area where children are connected with one another and learn to support and care for their teammates. These interactions teach them patience, kindness and empathy. However, a study published in Psychology Today observed that this important and humane side of our youth’s personalities is sadly becoming scarce. One of the reasons the study observed for this was a decline in outdoor activities that involved free play which lead to a whopping 40 percent drop in empathy levels that was seen among college students post 2000.
Seemingly small, minute things like waiting their turn and giving others a fair chance teaches patience and consideration in children. When an unwelcome situation arises during the course of play, in the absence of adults to mediate, children learn vital aspects of communication to resolve their own differences, and practical thinking. They also learn to respect rules, teammates and boundaries. Outdoor activities also teach first-hand awareness. As a child it’s imperative to grow one’s own independent sense of awareness and understanding of risks and challenges to know how far one can push themselves, and when it’s time to step back and accept a situation that is beyond their control.
Children are known to spend hours on things that catch their fancy and the outdoor world is full of wonders, waiting for a child to dive in and explore. It isn’t surprising then that outdoors also helps to reduce stress and distraction in little children, even those who find it a challenge to concentrate. Spending hours outdoors in the garden, watching the insects and animals, enjoying the sunshine and the rain – apart from these wonder of nature, being a small part of the large world order that is our outdoors, is eye-opening for children to develop a sense of citizenship and widens their spiritual horizons to understand their place and that of others in the universe.
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