Experts say it’s not only possible to nurture an appreciation for the outdoors in your children, but also entirely necessary. Parenting expert, speaker and author Nikki Bush notes that outdoor play can benefit almost every facet of development, from gross-motor skills to sensory integration and even imagination. “Children thrive on space. They experience their bodies in a different way when they aren’t constrained in a room,” she explains.
The sense of freedom that is part of the grand outdoors encourages large gestures that, Bush adds, lay the foundation for the mastery of small, fine-motor movement. What’s more, as children run and climb, they strengthen their core and improve postural control, which affects their ability to concentrate while sitting at a desk. Running after a friend during a game of “catch” challenges depth perception, and strengthens the visual system so that little eyes can focus on reading. Furthermore, small bodies contain an enormous amount of energy that can become destructive if it isn’t channelled effectively.
That’s not to say that indoor play is without its benefits, and it certainly isn’t possible to put a blanket ban on technology in a world where gadgets are omnipresent. The key, says Bush, is to achieve balance between spending time in the sunshine as well as indoors.
One of the best ways to do this, according to play psychologist Faye Gough, is simply to create a taste for the outdoors. A regular family walk or cycle around your suburb may be all it takes to spark your child’s awareness and interest in what’s happening outside – especially if you take the time to point out the exciting things taking place around them. “Appeal to their sense of curiosity and adventure by teaching them about the wonder of nature – show them the differences between leaves, the beauty of trees and flowers, the busyness of insects,” she says. Even half an hour spent lying on your back, making shapes out of clouds, or watching the stars in the evening, will help create a sense of magic – enough to convince them to spend more time seeking out other outdoor wonders.
Bear in mind that if your child doesn’t naturally gravitate to this sort of activity, your efforts will be counterproductive. “For a child who hates cycling, a family bike ride will be a chore,” Faye notes. It’s worth finding out what appeals to your child, and fine-tuning your outdoor activities accordingly. For instance, if she’s less physical, she may enjoy having a patch of garden reserved for her own use. Give her a few implements and some seeds, and she’ll enjoy the sense of ownership she has over her space – especially as she watches her plants grow.
No sign of green fingers amongst any of the family members? Nikki recalls that, when her own children were growing up, she and her husband agreed to leave an area of their garden uncultivated. Her sons used this patch to make mud pies; as a racing track for their dinky cars; to ramp their bikes and even to build their own golf courses. “A messy area that kids can call their own is very useful,” she says.
Fun ideas for outdoor games
Have fun with paint and chalk
Your children will also delight in the giant canvas presented by brick and tile. If you’re not keen on having your patio transformed into a painted artwork try chalk – it washes out instantly. The important thing here, says Nikki, is that children can see the effects rain and water have on mediums like chalk and even paint. This relates to experimentation, which itself is closely linked to creativity and innovation – qualities which are becoming increasingly important in the workplace. The fact that these artworks are temporary also teaches the concept of transience, which Nikki says is critical in a world where very little can be counted on to remain unchanged.
If you have trees large enough to support a treehouse, your children have the perfect setting for their fantasy worlds, where they can transform into fairies and pirates. A Wendy house will also do the trick, but if neither of these is a possibility, simply hand them some old towels or sheets and let them work out how to build a fort. As Faye says, this is the real beauty of outdoor play: it nurtures resourcefulness, because children have to see the potential in ordinary items.
What’s noteworthy about these outdoor hideaways is that they give your child a place to be private. This is one of the crucial elements of outdoor play, says Faye. “Being outside gives children a great platform to discover who they are. Because of all that space, there’s less emphasis on parental supervision. Of course, this is still vital, but helicopter parenting isn’t possible when children are playing hide-and-seek. It’s a chance for children to explore and, when they feel the need to check back in with their parents, return to the safety net represented by mom and dad.” She adds that a parent’s role changes when their kids are outside. It’s less about directing play and more about offering suggestions for things they might enjoy. This is a space where your children can truly rule their domain, so it’s an ideal time for you to step back and allow them to experiment with separation, intervening only if you can see that there’s a chance of real conflict or danger. “You’d keep a tighter rein inside, but it’s precisely this lack of structure that makes outdoor play so empowering.”
Experiment with different textures
No garden? No problem. A local park will provide the space your child needs to play games with other kids, and most are equipped with jungle gyms or swings. But even if this is not a possibility, you can always create a small space on your balcony where your child can experiment with textures like sand and water. A sand pit or water tray is ideal, or help them set up a window-box garden so they can watch nature’s processes unfold. Just keep an open mind, urges Faye. Accept that there will be mess, and adopt the attitude that it can be easily cleaned up, rather than punishing your child for it.
“The indoor world tends to be carefully controlled because we’re scared of breakages and untidiness. Outdoors is a giant platform where your child can explore who they truly want to be,” Faye concludes.
In her 16 years as journalist, Lisa Witepski’s work has appeared in most of South Africa’s leading publications, including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Entrepreneur and Financial Mail. She has written for a number of women’s magazines, including Living & Loving, Essentials and many others, across topics from lifestyle to travel, wellness, business and finance. She is a former acting Johannesburg Bureau Chief for Cosmopolitan, and former Features Editor at Travel News Weekly, but, above all, a besotted mom to Leya and Jessica. Lisa blogs at whydoialwayscravecake.blogspot.com and lisa.witepski.blogspot.com, and tweets at @LisaWitepski.