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Archive for January, 2014

Talking recently to her junior primary school class, my friend, Rosemary Clarke, used the word, “picnic”. “What’s a picnic?”, the children asked. Unlike the happy toddler and her baby sister in this photo, these children from a Sydney suburb had never eaten a meal under a tree in a park or on the bank of a river or even on one of Sydney many beaches.

Family picnic

The photo, it should be said, was taken over 25 years ago when the world of childhood was different but beginning to change. In the past two decades, children’s recreational contact with the natural world has declined dramatically as indoor activities have substantially replaced outdoor play. In 1981, according to surveys conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, children ages 6 to 17 spent an average of 100 minutes outdoors in unstructured play each week. By 2002, that time was halved to a mere 50 minutes.

In one generation, the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. In the US, in just six years (1997-2003) children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. Eleven- to 15-year-olds in Britain now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen.

The story in Australia is much the same. For example, a recent Western Australian study found that over 70% of primary children reported participating in more than the recommended maximum of two hours electronic media activity on all of the seven days prior to the survey. Similar proportions of children exceeding guidelines have been revealed in other Australian and international research.

Does it matter that indoor activities are displacing outdoor play? Will children’s development, health, happiness and well-being suffer as a consequence?

Yes, is the answer commonly given by professionals involved with children and their welfare. Richard Louv, for example, claims that impoverished contact with the natural world places children at risk of what he calls nature-deficit disorder. This is not a medical diagnosis but a label for the costs to children of being disconnected from nature. The costs Louv describes include inadequate and inappropriate sensory stimulation, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.

Louv’s concern is shared by many othersand is based largely on observations of the benefits children obtain from living, learning or playing in natural environments. These benefits include

  • improved physical fitness and co-ordination,
  • lower likelihood of obesity,
  • less risk of short-sightedness (myopia),
  • less stress,
  • increased self-esteem,
  • strengthened self-control,
  • enhanced academic motivation and performance and
  • relief from some of the symptoms of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder.

It is also widely believed that, by promoting free, unstructured and creative play of the kind these kids are having, nature provides optimal stimulation for healthy brain development. IMG_0600

What being nature-deprived means for children’s long-term development and functioning as adults has still to be discovered. But there are immediate consequences we already know about, for example:

  • they have less exposure to the sky-blue light that, in children especially, has a potent influence on human sleep patterns, hormonal and chemical rhythms, mood and alertness;
  • they have less of the colour, depth and motion stimulation needed for the development of full visual powers;
  • their awareness and understanding of the natural world is impaired. The decline in children’s basic knowledge of nature is now being documented. A United Kingdom survey commissioned by the Airbus Corporation found, for example, that 37 per cent of children aged between 5 and 10 did not know what a bee looked like and a third could not recognise a mouse;
  • they are at risk of becoming fearful of nature and even contemptuous of whatever is not “man-made, managed or air-conditioned”.

In having much less free play in natural settings, the children of today are missing out on what I call an authentic childhood.

I’ll have more to say about this in posts to come.

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Comes the new year – comes the resolutions. If increasing your level of physical activity is a resolution you have made (whether it is one for the new year or not), good on you.

You are probably as aware as I am that having sufficient regular exercise is essential for physical health and is a major contributor to mental well-being as well. We hear this message constantly from health professionals directly and through the media. Although it is a message most of us have heard, it is one many of us have difficulty doing something about.

I wish that there was a single, simple answer to the problem – but there isn’t. People find it hard to be physically active for all sorts of reasons, valid and otherwise. A major hurdle for many people is the motivational one – finding the desire to be physically active on a regular basis.

One tried and true way of managing this hurdle is to find ways of being active that are intrinsically attractive and rewarding. If exercising gives us pleasure and satisfaction, we are much more likely to make it an integral part of our lifestyle. Gardeners, for example, get plenty of healthy exercise doing the activities that having a colourful or productive garden requires. Research has shown, in fact, that compared with non-gardeners, gardeners have greater life satisfaction as well as higher physical activity levels and better health.green exercise 4

Gardening is a form of activity referred to as “green exercise”. This term was coined by Jules Pretty and his team at the University of Essex where they work in a research centre dedicated to the study of green exercise in its many forms.

Any recreational activity undertaken in the presence of nature qualifies as green exercise. The “nature” can be bushland, forest, the seaside, parks as well as home gardens. Even working out in a gym while looking at nature posters or photographs confers some of the benefits of green exercise.

The Essex team have found that green exercise delivers benefits beyond those of physical activity alone. It is consistently reported to be more enjoyable, interesting and easier!!. It lifts mood, reduces tension and promotes a sense of vitality. Another consistent finding is that green exercise improves self- esteem. When shared with others, green exercise promotes friendship, community cohesion, social skills and the formation of support networks. Not surprisingly, there is evidence that green exercise substantially reduces the risk of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Green exercise has a bit going for it, hasn’t it?

If you would like to “green” your physical activity, here are some guidelines (all drawn from research) you might like to consider:

  • Investigate your neighbourhood and local area for green spaces suitable for the activity you have in mind. You could start with street maps and then do some exploring by car, bicycle or on foot. Consult your local council for information about parks and gardens and, while you are at it, for information about  community green activities already underway in your area. If you find a place close (within 600 metres) to home so much the better, but don’t write off places further afield. You can consider visiting these weekly or monthly to add some “green” spice to your daily exercise routine.
  • Find some “buddies” – partner, neighbours, relatives, parents you met at your kids’ school or sport, etc. Keep the group informal. green exercise 3And there is always the pet dog, of course. Socialising through green exercise is beneficial in itself and is a big factor maintaining motivation and commitment.
  • Adopt a regular, set program preferably with a variety of activities and settings. Speaking of settings, the ones that work best, it seems, are well maintained, have good tracks and are safe. green exercise 2Build achievement opportunities into your program, e.g., realistic distance or time targets, and/or community service opportunities in the form of conservation projects, for example.
  • Follow an “awareness plan” – that is, a plan that helps you connect with the natural environment. Include in your plan simple ways of tuning into nature with all of your senses. Try looking at natural settings through different eyes, those or an artist, photographer or conservationist, for example.
  • Approach green activities “playfully”. Avoid thinking of them in terms of “oughts” and “shoulds”. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!

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