The benefits of getting your kids outdoors

Is keeping kids happy and healthy as easy as sending them outside? Kathmandu Ambassador, Patron of Nature Play South Australia, and loving dad Tim Jarvis, tells us why the outdoors is crucial in shaping your child’s development.

Tim, why do we need organisations like NaturePlay?

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 — can you believe? They spend two hours a day outdoors, most kids spend a lot less than that.

What are the benefits of getting kids outdoors?

There are a lot of developmental benefits. Kids who spend a lot of time in nature develop problem solving abilities. Nature has no straight lines so 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. You’re risk assessing all the time. You’re learning. You’re thinking. You’re having to make judgements for yourself.

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.

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 — not spending enough time [being] physically active.

Playing outdoors helps really tackle that issue.

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 as adults.

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 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.”

“… I had a lot of formative experiences as a kid, 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.

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 homes and so 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 great. Because they develop as people exploring the environment themself rather than having it handed to them, which is what they typically get through an app or a structured play environment, like a playground where everything has been designed ergonomically and if they fall, they end up on rubber matting …”

What are some your favourite outdoors adventures with your kids?

We make an absolute rule to get away and go camping with the kids every month if we can. 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.

What advice do you give parents?

I think we live in a culture where we wrap kids up in cotton wool and we protect them and we think that’s the best thing for them, but developmentally, I don’t think that 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 have your kid do in an afternoon after school, let them go outdoors and have some unstructured play and it will reap huge rewards.

Tim Jarvis is a Kathmandu ambassador, environmental scientist and Patron of Nature Play SA. He was named Australian Geographic’s Conservationist of the Year 2016.