Why we need to share outdoors adventures with our children

Written by Bizi Boyd-Hall, Discovery Sprouts

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Discovery Sprouts is all about encouraging families to share adventures together in the great outdoors. It is a hands-on, wellies-on experience with story-telling, nature crafts and imaginary play held in beautiful woodland. But why? Why is it so important to be sharing this time outside together with your children?

We all know we’re living in a world where our children are faced with constant stimulation and instant gratification with too much screen time, all-singing, all-dancing gadgets and lots of pressure to perform.  This is having dramatic results on our children’s physical and mental wellbeing, yet the solution is so simple – play together outdoors. Yes, it really is that easy, but what is it about playing outside that helps children to blossom into healthy, happy, resilient and confident young people? 

First of all, play is essential to children. It’s how they learn, how they find their place in the world and how they discover who they are. Take that playing outside and it gives children an enormous amount of freedom. Freedom to get dirty, to run, to let their imaginations run wild, to jump in puddles, to squelch in mud, to climb, to run and to shout as loud as they can! I’m pretty sure we can all admit that we don’t really like that happening inside our houses?

So take them outside and let that exuberance, that raucous behaviour, that pure joy, all those things that characterise childhood, be expressed. 

I can’t continue without mentioning mud! Dirt doesn’t hurt. In fact, quite the opposite. We live in a sterilised world where we disinfect everything our babies come into contact with, but there is still a rise in the prevalence of allergies and asthma. Now, I’m not suggesting anyone actually gives those mud pies a lick but rather that regular exposure to mud can do your immune system the world of good. Playing with mud is also also a fantastic sensory experience which is how young children naturally learn. If your child is engaged and motivated by an activity, then you can be certain that it is providing them with a fantastic learning opportunity. Best of all, scientists are suggesting that exposure to friendly-bacteria in mud releases serotonin in the brain which can help reduce a child’s vulnerability to depression. With an alarming rise in the number of children and young people affected by mental health problems, this has to be something to consider.

As an increasingly risk-averse society especially where our children are concerned, risky play can be a prickly subject. However, play with an element of risk, the thrill of something a little dangerous, is how children learn to challenge themselves and test their own abilities. Playing outdoors gives endless opportunities for this. Climbing trees, jumping off logs, balancing on tree trunks, swinging on branches – these are all ways that children explore what their bodies are capable off and what their own boundaries are. Activities don’t have to be adrenaline fuelled or knee-quivering to be considered risky, and our children, just like us, will discover their own very clear limits when they are given the space to experiment.

When I went to my daughter’s first parents’ evening, the word the teachers used to describe her was “resilient”, and I gave a little fist pump with delight! There are lots of other words to describe it – gumption, perseverance, grit, determination, but what it boils down to is an ability to cope with what life throws at you and to keep at it. When I see children playing outside, I see this resilience in abundance. I see it when they build dens and drag sticks that are bigger and heavier than them but they keep on going. I see it when they climb steep hills, falling flat on their faces time and time again, but they keep going until they reach the top. I see it when they want to climb to a higher branch that terrifies and excites them in equal measure, but they keep going until they get there. I see it when they are trying to light a fire with flints long after all their friends have done it, but they still keep at it until that spark finally takes. The sense of pride in those achievements, as well as the grit it took to get there, will stick with children, filtering into other aspects of their life where it will help them to succeed. They believe in themselves, not because someone told them they are good enough, but because they know they are.

The other big one for me is the magic of outdoors pretend play. Imaginative play is essential in developing social and emotional skills in children as they quite literally get to ‘play out’ different scenarios and roles and see how they feel in them. Not to mention how much it helps them communicate with each other, developing language skills, co-operation and empathy. With a little bit of imagination, a walk in the woods can turn into the greatest adventure. With an abundance of natural props, hiding places and space to play in children can really get swept away. A stick can become anything in the hands of a child – a sword, a wand, a wooden spoon, a broomstick or a horse. A game of hide and seek can turn into a knight’s mission to rescue a princess from a fiery dragon. A scavenger hunt can become a pirate’s voyage for treasure, searching for golden leaves, conker cannon balls and parrots’ feathers. Our children are born with a bucket load of imagination and it doesn’t take much to stoke the fire.

Finally, don’t let us forget the benefits of outdoor play are for parents and carers too. Looking after our own mental and physical health is essential, and taking play outside is as good for us as it is for our little people. All the same reasons apply to us as to them plus it’s free, sibling rivalry and whinging seems to dissipate out there and it’s an altogether more relaxing experience than 2 hours in soft play hell!

If I’ve convinced you to get outside here are some ideas to try…

  • Grab your wellies and waterproofs and dance in the rain (we’re getting plenty of it!)
  • Get an old bowl, a couple of spoons and a muffin tray and make some mud pies.
  • Go on a bug hunt – bring a magnifying glass along so you feel like a pro!
  • Read a story together under a tree and see what pretend play it inspires. The Gruffalo is a great one to start with.
  • Try geocaching – a real life treasure hunt 
  • Search for sticks and take them home to decorate with pipe cleaners, ribbons and tape to make magic wands.

Follow Discovery Sprouts on Facebook and Instagram for regular tips and ideas for playing together outdoors. I’d love to see you at a story-telling and nature craft session too!

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