A world at your feet

A world at your feet
Spending time outdoors can make a massive difference to your life, writes Colm Fitzpatrick

Do you remember how you had fun during your childhood? Is it radically different to how kids spend their leisure time today? When the older generation reflect on how they spent their youth, usually the images of hopscotch, conkers and tag pop into their mind. For the most part, these games are resigned to history along with one pertinent theme about them: playing outside.

Fewer young people are exploring the great outdoors compared to their older generational counterparts. According to a survey by the UK’s National Trust, children today spend half the time their parents did playing outside. The research revealed that on average, children nowadays play outside for four hours a week, whereas parents scored 8.2 hours a week when they were kids. This statistic is a startling reminder that the world of leisure has shifted substantially in the last decade or so. No longer are kids congregating in the streets to play Red Rover or Blind Man’s Bluff but are now focused intently on games you can play at home.

The main cause of this phenomenon is unequivocally due to the technological revolution that has completely reshaped how we interact with others and spend are lives. Leisure is mostly confined to computers and phone screens where we can live out simulations for hours on end. So pervasive and addictive online gaming is today that the NHS has recently set up a centre for Internet and Gaming Disorders.

NHS chief executive Simon Stevens said: “Gaming disorder is defined by the World Health Organisation as a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour so severe that it takes “precedence over other life interests”.

“Symptoms include impaired control over gaming, increased priority to gaming and continuation or escalation of gaming despite negative consequences – such as the impact on relationships, social life, studying and work life or spiralling financial costs.”

It’s not just gaming that is sucking up children’s time, staring at screens in general makes up large proportion of a young person’s day. According to a study carried out by market research firm Childwise, children aged 5-16 spend an average of six and a half hours per day in front of a screen, with teenage boys totting up 8 hours daily.

Speaking about this issue, Muriel Bailey, Director for Family Support Services of Parenting NI, says that the issue now is that children “have so much access to online tools, social media, games, and it’s a whole different type of world” compared to even a decade ago.

“Probably what parents are finding is that they need to work harder at getting children more interested in being outside whenever other things are possibly seen as more attractive inside.”

It isn’t fully clear what long-term effects our obsession with technology will have, but there is no doubt that it truncates outside social play. Instead of calling over to your friend’s house to build a fort, why not make one online instead? This mentality has driven kids out of the playground and into the virtual ground.

Those unhappy about this change may be ridiculed for their old-fashioned views – perhaps we should all wholeheartedly embrace this new form of leisure and abandon any reservations we may be harbouring. The problem with this viewpoint is that it ignores the important benefits playing outside have on young people. There are positives to be garnered from having fun outdoors that can’t be reproduced indoors:

  • Physical fitness – By running around, jumping and lifting, children are unconsciously exercising. These forms of aerobic activity make you fitter and reduce the chances of developing obesity.
  • Cognitive agility – Outside games allow you to be more creative; sticks can become wands and trees can be transformed into skyscrapers in an imaginary city. With endless possibilities to devise while you explore and learn about the environment around you, your mind will become more inventive and agile.
  • Friendly faces – It’s true that you can develop long-lasting friendships online; they are no lesser than ones created in person. However, by playing with other people who are physically with you, your interpersonal skills will improve and teach you the importance of physical contact with others.
  • Nurturing nature – Nature has a lot to offer, it can make us feel less stressed and look at the world in a different way. If all our time is focused on a screen, then it will be hard to appreciate the joy of digging up soil or making paper boats to sail down a stream.

While the benefits of playing outside are obvious, stating them is not enough to convince most kids to get out of the house. Given how addictive technology has become, the prospect of playing ‘Hide and Seek’ may not sound very appealing. In this vein, it might be helpful to acclimatise your kids to the great outdoors by going on adventures and outings with them.

A great way to for kids to appreciate the beauty of nature is by going camping. By disconnecting yourself from the world of wires and websites, by focusing on building fires and toasting marshmallows, the wilderness might seem like a more interesting place than they previously realised. It’s in this environment that young people can learn about the flora and fauna of Ireland’s landscape. The games played at home might seem less alluring after a weekend away climbing trees and sleeping under the stars. Going camping isn’t just for the kids either; parents should also abide by the digital detox and soak up some nature.

Camping is a truly immersive experience but you can’t head out to the middle of nowhere and set up a tent every weekend – life usually gets in the way of those kinds of adventures. Given that’s the case, try doing simple outdoor activities with your kids like walking twice a week, visiting a local park or going for a bike ride. If you spend a large proportion of your time outside, your kids will probably emulate that behaviour. Along with these outings, you can also visit national parks and zoos as well as teach your kids gardening.

Older kids might be more interested in fishing, flying a kite on the beach or learning different games that you played as a child.”

Muriel Bailey of Parenting NI advises that you do activities that are age-appropriate – if your children are very young then take them to the park, point out different types of trees or have a look at the different animals in the countryside.

Older kids might be more interested in fishing, flying a kite on the beach or learning different games that you played as a child.

There’s no denying the virtual world has taken grip of children’s leisure time and as technology continues to advance, remaining in the house with a controller will become more enticing. The gaming world should not be denigrated – there are immense benefits from playing on computers and other devices. However, this should not replace exploring the outdoors and playing physical games with other kids. Muriel says that indoor activities mustn’t be “discredited”, but that there has to be a “happy medium” between the two. A fine balance needs to be broached where children can play with both the control stick and the wooden one you find a garden.

For more information about the importance of playing outside, see: https://www.parentingni.org/