Why we need to get kids outdoors

A 2019 report by the Australian Government found that one quarter of kids aged between 2 and 17 were considered overweight or obese in 2017-18. Environmental scientist and Kathmandu’s global ambassador, Tim Jarvis, uses adventure to raise environmental awareness. He’s also a father of two and a patron of NaturePlay South Australia, a charity dedicated to getting kids outdoors. Tim explains how outdoor adventure helps children’s mental and physical development, while setting them up for a life of appreciating and protecting nature.

Hi, Tim. Why do you think we need organisations like Nature Play?

Nature Play encourages kids to get outdoors, which you wouldn’t think is a problem, but it is a problem, these days. Most kids spend less time outdoors than your average high-security prisoner, who spend two hours a day outdoors. Most kids spend a lot less than that.

(A survey run in 2016 by the UK National Trust found that, on average, children were playing outside for just over four hours a week, which makes that just over 70 per cent less time spent outdoors than the average high-security prisoner.) 

What are the benefits of getting kids outdoors?

There are a lot of developmental benefits to getting kids outdoors. Kids who spend a lot of time in nature develop problem-solving abilities. Nature has no straight lines. If you’re a kid climbing a tree outdoors you have to make judgements about whether the branches are strong enough to support your weight. Your assessing risk all the time. You’re learning. You’re thinking. You’re having to make judgements for yourself.

If you’re playing in a human construct all the time – say you’re on a climbing frame some adult has designed that for you to ensure that it holds your weight. You don’t have to think. All the rungs are equidistant and in a tree that’s not the case. So even basic experiences like climbing trees teach kids things about risk assessment and becoming more resilient. If they have a little fall, they have to get over it. And life is like that. You don’t want serious problems but you want them to have learning experiences and to come back from those having developed in some ways.

Kids playing with a Katmandu blowup ball

Are there health benefits too?

Playing outdoors has a whole bunch of benefits to do with health. Obesity is an increasing problem with kids these days from not spending enough time being physically active. Playing outdoors helps really tackle that issue.

(In fact, a Japanese health study back in 2007 found that a three-day period spent in a forest created a boost of, on average, 50% to subject's natural killer cells. These are a type of white blood cell and a part of your immune system.) 

What about benefits beyond the kids themselves?

Yeah, if you want to grow a generation of kids who are passionate about protecting the environment, then they have to have had some formative life experiences as kids in the environment or they don’t see any value in protecting it.

Can you remember an early encounter with nature that had an impact on you?

I grew up in Malaysia as a kid and my parents would often say, “See you later. Go outdoors. See you at five.” I learnt a lot about myself and finding things to do and being creative and being happy with my own company. I remember as a 12-year-old getting lost in the jungle. We were at a jungle camp and I got separated from other kids I was out with. I remember thinking, “If I go that way, that should be east. If I go east, I should get to the coast. If I go south from the coast, I should get back.” 

Three or four hours later, after darkness had fallen, I sort of stumbled back into camp and the teachers said, “Where have you been?” and I said, “Oh I got lost but I did this, this and this and I got back.” They were kind of proud of what I’d done and so was I. And I’ve carried that experience forward with me. I learnt something about myself that day.”

And this shaped who you are today?

Yes, I had a lot of formative experiences as a kid when playing in the outdoors and that’s what led to my career in environmental science and my expedition work. It was a love of the outdoors and a fear that it might not be there unless someone steps up and tries to protect it.

Tim Jarvis dressed in old expedition gear on a snow-covered beach
In 2007, Jarvis wore 1912 expedition clothing and equipment, and recreated the distance of Sir Douglas Mawson’s survival journey by hauling a sled hundreds of kilometres across Antarctica.

Did you want to stand up for nature even as a young kid? 

I think the idea that nature needed protecting is something that grows over time. I spent a lot of time in the outdoors, but I always assumed it was this infinite space. I used to go to places like the Antarctic, and it seemed like this huge place. And it is. It’s more than 50 times the size of New Zealand. The ocean – you think it’s huge, inexhaustible, but, of course, it’s not. The more you travel, the more you hear, the more you see about the materialism that underpins everything we do, the more concerned you get and the more you realise that if you’re in a position to do something about it, you really have to. So that’s really driven me.

And now you're a parent yourself. And so you understand that getting kids outdoors can be a challenge?

Yes, my boys are six and eight. The older one is learning with a tablet at school and so he wants to use mine when he comes home. There’s a little bit of arm wrestling involved to say, “Go on the trampoline, take the dog out, go to the local park, and then come back, you might get a few minutes.”

It’s just about getting them outdoors as much as you can. It doesn't have to be an expedition. It just has to be outdoors where they’re interacting with nature at some level. It doesn’t have to be extreme. You see little bits of local wildlife. You can climb on logs, uneven surfaces, climb a tree. Let them do it. The rewards will be greatThey develop as people when exploring the environment themselves, rather than having it handed to them, which is what they typically get through an app or a structured play environment. I don’t think playing in those environments sets people up to be good, well-rounded adults. 

I think at the end of the day it has to come back to the parents setting some boundaries. It requires putting in a little bit of extra effort but I think you reap the rewards in the end.

What are some of your favourite outdoor adventures with your kids?

We make an absolute rule to get away and go camping with the kids. And they help me gather twigs for fires and set up the tent. You’ve got to gather water and so they start to get a basic understanding of stuff around them. I think having them experience nature with you, things like swimming in the sea and having big fish swim past, they’re wonderful experiences.

I believe very firmly in the benefits that it will bring and I can see how happy my kids are when they’ve spent time outdoors. They come back with a degree of confidence and self-awareness that you just can’t get playing with an app.

(Read more about camping with kids with Justin and Bec Lorrimer, who in 2015 packed up their kids into a caravan and started exploring Australia. They haven’t stopped.) 

What advice do you give parents?

I think we live in a culture where we kind of coddle kids and we protect them, thinking that’s the best thing for them, but developmentally, I don’t think that it is. I think kids learn a lot from understanding more about how they interact with natural spaces. They learn about emotional well-being, resilience, risk assessment. These are all skill sets that help you become a more well-rounded person. 

So, if you’re a parent and you’re thinking about what to get your kids doing on an afternoon after school, let them go outdoors and have some unstructured play. It will reap huge rewards. 

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