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By Sally Holt
Urban density, shrinking backyards and changing lifestyles are impacting on the amount of time children spend outdoors. Associate Professor Mardie Townsend, from Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development, warns it is a trend that comes with health and environmental costs.
A few months ago the Victorian Government announced that Melbourne’s urban fringe was set to sprawl a little further. For the fourth time in a decade, the city’s surrounding areas of green will be dug up and concreted over. It’s a familiar chapter in the tale of urban growth: while governments may pledge preservation of the city’s green wedges, they are also deeply swayed by developers who promise employment and economic growth.
But it’s also part of a bigger picture that now paints modern childhood. New suburbs, shrinking backyards, higher density housing, and social and technological change are all contributing to the 21st century trend that’s seeing more children playing indoors than outdoors.
In less than one generation there has been an astonishing change in the way children play and this shift has been part of Associate Professor Mardie Townsend’s research interests in Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development. She says that for the past decade, there has been a growing concern about the lack of nature-based play.
‘There’s been some interesting research done in the US, UK, Sweden and Finland that explores this interface between children and nature … there’s increasing recognition that kids are spending more time indoors than interacting with nature,’ she says.
But the shrinking backyard isn’t the only reason for the great indoors.
‘Kids are now spending a lot more “screen time” in front of televisions, computers and hand‑held devices. And further to this there’s been the increasing fear by parents of stranger danger. All these things combined means that children are having much less exposure to the natural environment.’
The school’s initial research into the link between health and nature began 10 years ago when Parks Victoria adopted its “Healthy Parks, Healthy People” slogan.
Growing awareness of the link between physical activity, nature and health has now broadened to incorporate children’s needs and Dr Townsend says the shift to indoor play is raising health concerns that include obesity and poorer cognitive development.
‘There’s also a lack of recognition and understanding of the environment per se,’ she says.
‘Kids often don’t know how food is linked to the environment or where it comes from. The natural environment is also perfect for prompting questions – why, what, how – and for developing problem-solving abilities.’
She adds that nature-based activities can also be a good antidote to childhood stressors and some of the behavioural issues attached to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
‘Children can experience a lot of stress – some of them are busy every minute of the day with school and extra-curricular activities. Sometimes they just want to have time out alone. Getting into the natural environment has been shown to significantly decrease stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure. International research has also shown that children with ADHD and ADD cope much better in the classroom after 30 minutes of outdoor play.’
Another important benefit she says, is socialisation.
‘If you spend time in a park, people will often talk to you but walk through a shopping centre and no-one really talks to you … parks and open spaces often provide a bridge across a range of age, culture and ability divides.’
But is it a level playing field? Does one type of outdoor play trump another?
Dr Townsend says children’s outdoor play often falls into one of three categories, each with its own benefits.
‘There’s backyard play, playground play and wild nature play. The benefit of a backyard is that kids can access it at any time – and that’s really important. Playgrounds provide the stimulus of socialisation and all sorts of physical development achievements. But kids still need to get out into wild nature because that’s where the problem-solving happens. It’s where they learn to understand the intricacies of nature and the world – and that’s the really critical stuff,’ she explains.
For children who have the privilege of being raised on a large property or farm, the ability – and accessibility – to ‘free-range’ in wild nature is a given. But Dr Townsend says it’s still achievable for city and urban-based children.
‘Within the bounds of reasonable safety and supervision, children need to have an area in which they can “range” – either on their own or with their friends – and engage with nature … and if it’s not possible for them to do this on their own, then with a parent or another adult. Bushwalking, camping or visiting national parks all provide good opportunities for wild nature play.’
And while she agrees with urban densification, Dr Townsend says it’s imperative that planning authorities ensure the city has both green wedges around it, and green spaces within it.
‘We need to be creating and maintaining parkland areas … and every local area should have its own natural environment space that can be easily accessed and explored.’
In the meantime, she believes there is only a small window of opportunity for the message of nature-based play to be spread.
‘My task is to promote this message widely and not just to those who are converted. We need to get it into the early childhood and public health sectors. If a generation misses out on the love and knowledge of the environment, it has significant implications for the commitment of society to nature. Who is going to defend it in the future? And if another 10–20 years goes by, how much of the land that could be converted into open space will disappear?’
Find out more about Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development.
|Associate Professor Mardie Townsend
School of Health and Social Development
‘Getting into the natural environment has been shown to significantly decrease stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure. International research has also shown that children with ADHD and ADD cope much better in the classroom after 30 minutes of outdoor play.’