‘Three quarters of children spend less time outdoors than prisoners,” was the recent eye-catching headline over a British newspaper report on the results of a parental survey.
Twelve thousand parents from 10 countries were questioned about their children’s play habits and 74 per cent of those in Britain said their offspring spent less time playing outside than the daily hour of outdoor exercise recommended for prisoners by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Almost one in five admitted their child didn’t play outdoors at all on a typical day. Is there any reason to think it is vastly different for children on this side of the Irish Sea?
Comparing prisoners to children is an unpalatable yet in some ways apt comparison for the shackles modern living puts on many children. Most spend the majority of their time indoors and are allowed outdoors only under strict supervision, with no freedom to roam their neighbourhood.
"We have become indoor dwellers," says educational consultant Claire Warden, talking to Health+Family from outside Sydney, ahead of a visit to Dublin later this month. Even in areas of her native Scotland, or here in Ireland, where unspoiled nature is close to our doorsteps, many seem loath to venture out.
For families whose idea of a weekend “outing” is a trip to a shopping centre, these multistorey complexes, built around lifts and escalators, are now their children’s “playground”, she points out.
A passionate believer in the need to reconnect children of all ages with nature, Warden has founded the International Association of Nature Pedagogy, which was launched during her trip to Australia. Her collaborators include author Richard Louv, of Last Child in the Woods fame, and David Sobel, who promotes place-based education.
“Nature pedagogy” is a term Warden coined for working with children in a way that embraces nature – bringing it into their classroom, linking it to outdoor play areas and going to spaces beyond, such as forests and beaches, on a regular basis. The association is to lobby universities and colleges around the world to include nature pedagogy in their education courses.
Allowing children to connect with the natural world is about more than fresh air and exercise. Proven benefits of outdoor play range from a greater sense of wellbeing and better self-discipline to improved concentration, imagination and social skills. Just think for a minute how all the body’s senses are engaged outside in an ever-changing environment, compared with being in a sterile room.
Education through nature is a way to stimulate authentic, higher order thinking, Warden says.
“If you present learning in a very dull way, children just become the receivers of the knowledge; they sit there like morons really. They’ll take it in – at least some of it – but once you start to use nature pedagogy, they become curious, they become like scientists. They are researching, finding out, problem-solving, questioning.”
There’s too much emphasis on children remembering facts and figures and not enough about motivation, she continues. “They have got to love learning and not find it dull.”
‘Leaders of the future’
Authorities in China and Japan are asking her to do work on nature pedagogy “because they have realised that the skills they need in their workforce, of creativity and innovation, aren’t happening with the very dry way of delivering. We need the real stuff to make people creative and that’s what we need for leaders of the future”.
Parents don’t always make the link between high quality education and a small child covered in mud, she agrees.
"We, as [education] professionals, have to be able to say what the learning is behind being in the mud pits and running down the hill. And that's the skill. If we can't do that, then parents think it's not worth anything," says Warden, who will be in Dublin to address an Early Childhood Ireland conference in April, entitled Play is FUNdamental. Sometimes regarded as frivolous entertainment, play is in fact how children learn.
Nature pedagogy, says Warden, is a fun way of teaching children things like maths and language through the natural world – be it through blades of grass or a butterfly for instance, “rather than some awful film of somebody else watching a butterfly”. She feels very strongly about the way too many children have only “second-hand experiences” of nature now – living it through a screen.
“You have the situation where they don’t know what a tree is and where their milk comes from . . . It’s bonkers. Kids learn about science from a worksheet but they don’t understand it in reality.”
Parents need to play their part in enabling children to enjoy the outdoors. The digital age feeds paranoia about physical risk but, due to our skewed perception of danger, “we now have massive issues in terms of emotional risk”, she argues. Children are going to be dealing with mental health issues that might have been avoided if they could have reaped the benefits of nurture by nature.
Interestingly though, in the survey referred to at the top of this piece (conducted on behalf of Persil washing powder, which has a vested interested in dirty outdoor clothes), the number one reason given globally for keeping children indoors was not stranger danger, but the weather.
Repeating the saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, Warden suggests we have got into a habit of dressing children up in indoor clothing. “Rain never hurt you, wind doesn’t kill you but we have got to the point where we have to wrap them in cotton wool and not let any rain, wind or snow touch their faces – how bizarre!”
Trips to the countryside can also take time and effort. So what does she advise parents caught up in the necessary business of earning a living?
“I think it’s about realising childhood is about relationships,” she replies. “Looking at your weekend and saying ‘I can give them half a day in a park, or up a hill or by a beach or whatever’.”
Being a parent is hard work and sometimes it means being tough and turning off the television, adds Warden, who recently observed a mother on an iPhone, handing a two-year-old in a buggy a second iPhone.
“What happens to that whole effort of being a parent?” she wonders. “You have to not do what you want to do and be there – to take them to the park or let them play out.”
Investment in the early years
The crucial impact of a childcare worker's interactions with a preschool child is "incomparable to standing in a lecture hall in front of 18-year-olds", says Orla Doyle of UCD's Geary Institute. But while you may need a PhD to do the latter, you don't even have to have finished school to teach two-year-olds.
Levels of qualification, monetary rewards and societal esteem are all skewed towards the end of the education cycle, when there is ample evidence to suggest that investment in the early years has the greatest benefits.
“From a biological perspective it is important because most of our brain development happens from the ages of zero to three,” explains Doyle. “It’s also important from an economic perspective – if that investment is effective, you can reap the return of that investment over a longer period of time.”
Early years investment can improve children’s cognitive, social and behavioural skills as well as their health. This has an impact in the short term, but also means that they are more likely to stay in school and to get a job, less likely to be dependent on social welfare or turn to crime. “So spending early saves money later.”
However in Ireland “we tend to invest more in school age and at university level” – the reverse of the “Heckman curve”, devised by Nobel laureate James Heckman.
The annual spend by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on childcare and early education has been in the region of 0.2 per cent of GDP in recent years (although the OECD estimated it at 0.5 per cent when school enrolment at age five is taken into account) – significantly below the OECD average of 0.8 per cent and Unicef's 1 per cent benchmark.
Doyle, who will address next week’s Early Childhood Ireland conference on the importance of research in early childhood education, is the leader of an eight-year project to measure the impact of a “Preparing for Life” programme. It is a targeted intervention among families in a disadvantaged area of north Dublin, which runs from pregnancy to when the child starts school.
The final results of this randomised control trial into the effectiveness of an early years education programme will be announced later this year. But interim findings, up to 48 months, are showing very positive effects.
For more information, see: geary.ucd.ie/preparingforlife/
For more information on the Play is FUNdamental conference at Croke Park, Dublin, on April 15th-16th, see earlychildhoodireland.ie