When our children grow up and look back on their most treasured childhood memories, what will they remember? Will they have memories of climbing a tree as high as they’ve ever been before, or riding a bike down a hill so fast they thought they would never be able to stop? Will they remember having tea parties in a secret hiding spot in the garden or carting all your kitchen pots and pans outside so they could make mud pies?

These are our childhood memories. We grew up playing outside.  Adventures were limitless. We weren’t constrained by time or other activities, homework or our parents. It was free play outdoors. It was spontaneous, exhilarating, fun and exactly how we wanted to play. This was nature play and for most of us, the best time we ever had.

Two decades on, this type of play is no longer the norm. Unintentionally, our children’s lives have become characterized by technology, structure and inactivity. Having the time and opportunity to explore and create fun on their own is no longer a rite of passage for children.

Our children spend less than two hours a day outside, one in four have never climbed a tree, one in three have never planted a garden and the area in which they can explore, has shrunk by 90%.

This type of play is vital for children’s development, and for their health, happiness and well-being. It can combat obesity and the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Children will learn self-control over their actions and decisions. They will learn to take risks and to problem solve on their own. They will learn important life lessons and they will have the best fun they have ever had.

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Today I’m joined by a lady who’s on a mission to make unstructured outdoor play in nature an everyday part of childhood.

Sarah Sutter thinks she has the best job in the world. As CEO of Nature Play SA, Sarah works with organisations and families to help children enjoy the experiences she had when she was a child. Sarah is a Netball Commonwealth Gold Medallist and a qualified PE teacher and would count her role as mum to Tom and Jazz, as her most important and rewarding role yet.

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What did play look like for you as a child?

My play was very exciting; I had a creek at the back of my house so that was amazing, and my parents never knew where I was. I think I came home at dusk when I was really, really hungry! My play was always outside, up trees, and down the creek collecting tadpoles. I remember having 20 tadpoles and watching them turn into frogs, and one night I forgot to put the lid back on and all the frogs jumped out! I spent a lot of time with all the children in my street as well. We’d play games and go on adventures on our bikes. I have very fond memories.

I was quite lucky in that we lived in the suburbs but there was still a lot of vacant blocks. I also had the opportunity to live the country life as well; my parents had a holiday house on the Yorke Peninsula, a shack right on the beach. I was one-year-old with a fishing rod in my hand and really developed a love for the marine life. I still go back to that same shack with my children and do the same activities that I did as a child.

How has play changed and what is the impact?

In the last 20 years there’s been a huge shift in the way we played to the way children are playing now. Children are not playing the way we did; they’re not getting outside. They are on screens as technology has become a very big part of their lives. We are seeing that our children are less physically active, which is part of the ‘screen’ as well, but they’re also not getting the opportunity to be outside.

Parents are now working full-time; my grandmother died at age 102 last year and she never worked, my mother only worked part-time, and I work full-time. The statistics out now show that dual parents are working longer hours so they’re children are not getting the opportunities that we had as children.

There are 3 main factors I believe our children are facing which are reducing outdoor play; the screen, time-poor parents, and a very risk-averse society. We’re not letting our children have the opportunities of free, unstructured play i.e. they’re not roaming the streets. They’re also not being allowed to climb trees because it’s ‘dangerous’. Part of what we do is look at the risk-averse behaviour and try to change that. For example, playgrounds have changed to become plastic and without risk opportunities for children. By risk I’m not meaning putting your child by a cliff but it’s simple child development risks they need to take, like climbing a tree, like jumping to the next log. If you don’t learn risks as a child than you don’t learn those skills to take into adulthood.

The statistics that are coming out now are really alarming, e.g. 25% of children are overweight, there is an increase in mental health problems. Their cognitive and academic performances are declining as well. Unstructured play is a really key part of child development.

With technology we are also finding that children are coming into school with speech impairments because they have been entertained with screens rather than being spoken to at home.

Nature play is important because they learn so many skills, you won’t learn these skills being inside and that is where our children are spending too much time at the moment. Technology is here to stay, we need to find a balance and teach our children that they must have outside experiences as well.

What are the benefits of Nature Play?

There are huge benefits that we have forgotten about, but number one is that nature is free. It doesn’t cost any money to get outside.

Children who play in nature are sick less often. There is a bacterium in mud which releases the chemical serotonin into our brain which makes us happy.

Teachers from schools with nature play spaces have said that bullying has reduced in the school yard. This is because children have more ways to play; they can build, climb, and there is a lot more to do. They are connected to nature. Children with ADHD and Autism have been observed to be calmer in these spaces.

Every time we play in an unstructured way in nature – we are also learning about everything from mental health to gross motor skills. There’s so much evidence that having our children in nature is really important, and it’s not only good for them, it’s good for us as well. We need nature and nature needs us.

How can families get their kids out in nature?

We work with parents, and create resources and run free events. It’s about making time in your schedule to take your children outside.

The opportunities that we had of roaming the street are probably never going to come back because of the scare factor associated with social media. The stats on abduction etc. have not changed for 20 years, children aren’t getting abducted, but we hear more about it because of social media.

Also give them unstructured play, don’t hover around them but give them the resources i.e. a mud kitchen or loose parts.

If you don’t have a backyard, take your child to a national park. There are a lot of resources such as apps that will help people navigate their way around.

We are also trying to change the school playground which is where children spend the most time these days. We’re pushing toward natural play spaces in schools where children can climb trees and play with sticks and mud. We’re also working with councils to get rid of plastic playgrounds and put back nature play spaces.

For parents, let your children have a go climbing a tree and playing with sticks. Before you say no, look at the benefit for the child and weight it up. A family walk on the beach or through the park can create so many of the opportunities that we had as children.

What does Nature Play SA do?

We are an organisation about getting children outside again and connected to nature. We make a lot of resources e.g. ‘51 Things To Do Before You’re 12’ and ’25 Things To Do In Summer’. We have a Nature Outdoor Play Passport and we run free events in South Australia. You can go to our website and download our resources about making cubbies and nature play spaces in your backyard.

There is a Nature Play Queensland, Nature Play ACT, and Nature Play WA. But even if you google your state there are lots of little nature play organisations with the same vision.

So there you have it! Sarah Sutter from Nature Play SA, sharing a really important message to help get our kids outside in nature for their own emotional, spiritual and physical health.

If you haven’t yet checked out Nature Play SA, head on over and show them some support. They’re a not for profit organisation working hard to make unstructured outdoor play in nature an everyday part of childhood and they have plenty of amazing ideas and activities to help you in this area.

 


Laura

Laura Trotta is one of Australia’s leading home sustainability experts. Fusing her professional expertise as an environmental engineer with the down-to-earth pragmatism that comes from being a busy mum, Laura is an eco thought leader who’s not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Laura