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In 1960, an American psychiatrist, Herbert Hendin, was looking through statistics showing the rates of suicide in various countries. He was surprised to find enormous differences across the three Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Of all the countries Hendin surveyed, Denmark had the highest rate (along with Japan) whereas Norway had the lowest. Sweden was also well up the list, much closer to Denmark than to Norway.

Hendin was so intrigued by the contrasting rates that he travelled to Scandinavia to investigate the likelihood that cultural differences lay behind the differences. He spent four years there, learning Swedish and Norwegian in order to undertake his research. Although many factors influence the incidence of suicide, Hendin was able to conclude that differences in childrearing values and practices across the three countries were part of the explanation.

Norwegian child at playIn simple terms, Norwegian children played more freely, enjoyed more independence, had more opportunities to investigate the natural environment and spent more time learning by doing rather than being instructed. In contrast, childhood in Denmark and Sweden was more subject to adult control and expectations concerning education, careers and life goals generally. Under these conditions, Hendrin believed, Danish and Swedish children were more likely to experience failure, to have feelings of inadequacy and diminished self-worth and to develop anxiety and depression as a consequence. Norwegian children, on the other hand, encountered much less external pressure and, through their greater participation in free play, were more likely to develop self-confidence and resilience rather than self-doubt and vulnerability.

These different worlds of childhood reflected the contrasting economic and social environments thatNorway a existed in Scandinavia at the time. The rugged terrain of Norway had fostered small-scale, family-owned farming and fishing activity that kept many Norwegians in close touch with the natural world. For the children this meant that playing in this world was an integral part of life – indeed it was their life to a very large extent. Just as their parents had to exercise independence, self-reliance and resourcefulness, so too did the children. It is no surprise that their fairy-tale folk hero, Ash-lad, was a reflective, nature-savvy and highly enterprising individualist who found all sorts of unconventional ways of coming out on top.

The Ash-lad studying the embers

The Ash-lad studying the embers

Independence and individuality were much less valued elsewhere in Scandinavia. The flatter landscapes of Sweden and Denmark were much more conducive to large-scale and technological farming and to the centralisation of ownership. This gave rise to much less economic and social autonomy at the personal level and the strengthened perception that it was necessary to compete through personal achievement in order to get ahead.

Unlike its neighbours, Norway resisted Germany in World War 11. This strengthened the Ash-lad ideology. Then, the post-war economic boom spurred the rebuilding and development of Norway’s fisheries, farming and industry, a process that was greatly accelerated by a work-force steeped in the Ash-lad ethos. But this transformation ultimately brought Norway into the world of corporate capitalism and international economic competition, to the detriment of small-scale farming and fishing. In this new world, the influence of the Ash-lad is weakening even though his example of learning through, from and in nature continues to shape Norwegian educational values and practice. Norwegian children are now behaving and striving much more like their counterparts in other Western countries. Free play in natural surroundings is much less the norm.

And what of the Norwegian suicide rate at the end of this era of change? It is one of the highest in the world!

Now, the Norwegian story does not conclusively show that a link exists between:

(a) a pressured childhood in which there are fewer opportunities for free play and contact with nature and

(b) heightened anxiety, depression and suicide risk in later life.

But we have to consider the possibility of such a link. There is mounting evidence that outdoor play has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. Among other things, it fosters a sense of identity, feelings of autonomy and psychological resilience – all important contributors to a healthy sense of self-worth and a decreased risk of anxiety and depression.    

 

I found much of the material for this post in Sigmund Kvalϕy-Sӕtereng’s chapter in Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftsliv Way.

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Imagine this scene –

  • a rock ledge overlooking a six metre almost vertical drop to a small rocky creek bed
  • a doubled climbing rope, anchored to a large tree, falls from the ledge to the creek
  • Julia, a largish, middle-aged woman in a climbing harness, is attached to the rope and is striving vainly to lean back in the harness and let the rope support her
  • a second person, obviously an instructor, is gently coaching her to trust the equipment, to keep her legs straight and to let the rest of her body slowly slide to the abseiling position
  • a third person (also an instructor) is at the foot of the drop holding the rope in readiness to help the woman control her descent
  • after struggling for several minutes to overcome her fear and let herself lean even a few degree backwards, the woman suddenly loses patience: “This is bloody ridiculous. Make me do it Les. Bully me!”

Yes, I am the Les to whom the order was addressed. The amusingly ironic thing is that Julia, a well-known political activist, human rights champion and all-round formidable campaigner was certainly NOT a person to be bullied. Needless to say, I disobeyed and resorted to plan B which involved a shorter and gentler rock face on which Julia could build trust in herself and her equipment.

Julia was one of the 500 or so people that passed through a beginning bushwalking and camping course

Backpack workshop

Backpack workshop

for adults with which I was heavily involved for over 25 years. Guided by the principle of “gradualism” (as distinct from the “into the deep end” approach), the course took people through a series of activities, beginning with an

This the way you build a fire

This is the way you build a fire

 

indoor introductory workshop and culminating in an overnight, moderate grade, full-pack bushwalk in the Blue Mountains National Park.

“What has abseiling to do with basic bushwalking and camping?” you ask.

“Nothing”, I once would have said, but my mind was changed by a chance occurrence on the very first presentation of the course.

This is what happened. With a view to underscoring the message that safety in outdoor activities is largely of one’s own making, my co-leaders and I hit upon the idea of illustrating the principle in a demonstration of abseiling. There was no intention to do other than show the course members safety procedures before and during an abseil. But when we had finished the exercise, one of the participants said, “I’d like to have a go at that”. And he did – successfully and without fuss – and, in doing so, encouraged almost everyone else in the group to follow his lead.

The group that returned from the abseiling site was noticeably different from the one that walked there an hour or two earlier. Morale and camaraderie had surged and one sensed a heightened motivation for the course and for bushwalking more generally. The sentiment seemed to be, “If we can manage an abseil, bushwalking and camping will be a breeze”.

Just a matter of walking backwards - down a cliff

Just a matter of walking backwards – down a cliff

This change was not lost on my co-leaders and me. It was clear that the abseiling “demonstration” had to be a fixed part of all future courses – to be conducted in the same way with the move “to give it a go” coming from the participants (which, quite remarkably, it always did).

I am sure that Julia was fully aware of the value of giving challenges a go. She knew intuitively what she stood to gain from walking backwards down that drop. On another occasion during the course, she had this to say (in her characteristically forthright way) to us course leaders:

There should be more courses like this for older people. Everything is done for the young these days. We have to stop older people bringing down the shutters.

Her urging not to bring down prematurely the shutters on life has stayed with me – indeed inspired me – ever since.

Nature-based activities, including those like bushwalking or hiking that are not usually associated with “adventure”, are especially good ways of keeping the shutters wide open.

  • They take us into a world that stimulates our mental faculties and emotions, sometimes very powerfully;
  • They increase our openness and resilience to novelty and the unexpected;
  • They help us to discover mental and physical resources within ourselves that we may not know we have;
  • They nurture friendship, foster empathy and co-operation in personal relationships;
  • They can help us to re-frame and resolve personal problems and issues – and even to give added meaning and purpose to life.

And you have more than my word for all of this. Susan, a course graduate who became one of my regular bushwalking companions, was kind enough to let me record some of her thoughts about the benefits she derived from walking in nature.

This is a summary of what she said:

  • From the physically challenging walks, she gained a sense of accomplishment and heightened self-esteem. The camaraderie that came from sharing challenges with others fostered a sense of belonging and of being accepted by the group. Interestingly, she had valuable periods of alone time even when walking with and in the security of a group.
  •  In addition to increasing her existing friendship network, she also saw her socialising in bushwalking as an important part of maintaining connections and engagement in her more senior years.
  •  Susan valued the non-competitive nature of bushwalking and appreciated very much the way the activity could encourage caring attitudes and behaviour.
  •  Her bushwalking also strengthened her sense of purpose in life and her desire to keep well (“I do not want to be a little old lady with osteoporosis”).
  •  Not surprisingly, Susan admitted to having a “craving” for nature, revelling in its beauty, tranquillity and peacefulness.    
Susan and friends

Susan and friends

 

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I never thought I would think, much less say, that taking a mobile phone on a nature walk could be a good idea. Mobile phones have become technological tyrants in the lives of many people. Sure, they are a great communication tool, but they are an insistent source of distraction that can almost run our lives if we are not careful. And they certainly have no place in nature-based activities undertaken to find stillness, inner calm and tranquillity – or at least so I believed.

My mind was changed by Matthew Johnstone’s story. Having had a long struggle with depression himself, Matthew is now creative director at the Black Dog Institute. He has been greatly helped by what he calls “eyes-wide-open” meditation (EWOM). This, he says, is a form of mindfulness meditation that is for people who are turned off by conventional insight or mindfulness meditation (MM) – or who find it difficult.

The cover of Matthew Johnstone's book on how to use photography in mindfulness meditation

The cover of Matthew Johnstone’s book on how to use photography in mindfulness meditation

MM involves quietening the mind by channelling attention onto an object, such as a candle flame, a feeling, a word or mantra – “om” is a popular one – or one’s own breathing, and then observing in a non-judgemental way the thoughts and feelings that pop into your head. The key ingredient of mindfulness says medical academic, Dr Craig Hassed, is that “we are conscious of what is going on but not in a self-conscious kind of way – so paying attention rather than thinking about ourselves”.

In contrast to MM, which adopts an inward looking perspective, EWOM turns our observing to the world beyond ourselves. It requires us to slow down, look around, and let our attention be attracted and held. It centres our awareness on the “out there” and enables our senses to dwell on “beautiful light, beautiful shapes [and] beautiful colours”. It locates us in the present and the here and now and, in so doing, quietens the sometimes unpleasant and damaging “busyness” of our minds.

Matthew found that a camera can be a great aid to EWOM.

“A camera in your hands is the reminder to consciously slow everything down from your breath, to your walk, to your thoughts… To take photographs, we have to stop, look around, focus and capture. It brings our awareness to what’s going on.”

The camera does not have to be a fancy one. The camera built into most mobile phones is quite suitable for the purpose. Indeed, a mobile phone camera is the perfect tool for EWOM, he says, especially for people on-the-go. A great advantage of your phone camera is that you probably have it with you all or most of the time. It is also convenient to carry and easy to use.

Based on Matthew’s remarks, I have identified some simple guidelines for using your camera phone as a EWOM tool (no doubt Matthew would suggest others):

  • Switch the phone to aeroplane mode so that you’re not distracted by texts, tweets and the like.
  • Let the camera remind you to consciously slow everything down – from your breath, to your walk, to your thoughts – and then take time to look.
  • Imagine the camera is asking you questions like, “What can you see that no-one else can? What grabs your heart? What makes you smile?”

This last guideline underlines the importance of photographing only what resonates with you – what you find yourself drawn to happily and involuntarily. These will be subjects that you find intrinsically interesting and attractive; subjects that you attend to effortlessly and without direction from your conscious mind. Psychologists refer to this involuntary, interest and emotion-driven attention as “fascination”, and contrast it with the fatiguing, voluntary, choice-driven (or directed) attention that is so much part of day-to-day life.

In the human mind, nature and fascination go together. Just as directed attention is an inescapable part of life in modern environments, fascination is the “normal” or typical form of attention in natural places. The psychological relationship between fascination and nature is forged by our emotions. The emotional centres in the human brain evolved long before the thinking parts and continue to have a big say in our behaviour including where and how we focus our attention.

There is now overwhelming evidence that fascination experienced in natural environments is therapeutic. Apart from countering stress, it enhances recovery from mental fatigue and associated mood problems. It is not hard to imagine that regular doses of fascination help relieve depression and anxiety, perhaps by giving the brain time-out from negative thoughts and feelings.

Matthew Johnstone practices EWOM in all kinds of settings. But I think that natural settings have more than most to offer as far as EWOM is concerned.

Matthew Jonstone b

And if the phone camera can help with EWOM then I am willing to concede that there is a case for taking a mobile phone (switched to aeroplane mode, of course) on a nature walk. If you are going to be “in the present and the here-and-now” anywhere, the “present and the here-and-now” in nature are as good as it gets.

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That’s right: it’s “body and soil” not “body and soul” are one (although that may be true as well).

This ancient piece of Korean wisdom along with modern scientific discoveries is motivating a remarkable Korean public health initiative – the establishment of healing forest centres throughout the country. Talk about regarding nature as an essential resource for human health and general wellbeing (as I did in my last post)! A better example is hard to imagine.

I have more to say about the Korean healing forest centres below, but first I want to reflect on a recent related article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Quite by chance, the article, which also deals with nature as a resource, appeared soon after my last post was published. The article is by Gareth Collins, President of the NSW Chapter of Australian Institute of Landscape Architects and is entitled Sydney’s Beauty Lies in Nature.

Sydneysiders could see this as a slightly provocative title, given the world-wide admiration of the OperaSydney Harbour aerial House, the Harbour Bridge and indeed the many stretches of attractive urban development around Sydney Harbour itself.

But Gareth reminds us that Sydney has around it vast areas of natural bushland, much of it still in a state of wilderness. There are also ribbons of bushland within the metropolitan area itself. These are located mostly along rivers and creeks draining into the harbour or into Botany Bay in the city’s south. (The river entering the harbour in the centre top of the photo actually passes through one such ribbon of bushland, now preserved as a National Park.)

P1180407_1024

Suburban streets are not far away

As Gareth points out, these areas of natural bushland form an immense green infrastructure that pervades our suburbs, along roads, streets, creek lines and in parks, and makes Sydney one of the greenest cities in the world. This natural beauty, he writes, is a gift to Sydneysiders, which must not be taken for granted.

Like many cities around the world, Sydney is short of land to accommodate a very rapidly expanding population. In response, urban density is increasing along with the expansion of suburbs into formerly rural area. This, together with the development of essential infrastructure, poses a great threat to urban greenery, especially so if there is a failure to acknowledge the value of natural spaces as a resource for life.

Gareth sets out a charter of what is needed:

All development needs to contribute to the total urban forest so that shade, clean air and natural beauty are on hand. Projects need to be co-ordinated to ensure high-quality public space is accessible to all. A visual and physical connection to the landscape and water needs to be provided and maintained.

 And why?

[To] create a healthier environment, a happier inhabitant, and a more productive city.

The mention of health brings us back to Korea and specifically to Saneum Healing Forest near Seoul. South Korea is like Sydney in a way; it is richly endowed with vast natural areas, forests of towering pine, oak and maple. Saneum is one of 37 state-run recreational forest scattered across the nation. The forests offer citizens easy and enjoyable access to the country’s vast natural resources with cheaper entrance fees than other private or government-owned recreational forests.

Saneum is also one of three similar forests where healing centres have been established. These centres offer programs based on strong science that links forest-based activities, especially walking, to a range of health benefits, including reduced stress levels, lower blood pressure and improved concentration.

In this respect the programs are very similar to ones provided in Japan under the umbrella of the shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) movement. Activities included in the healing programs are meditation, forest yoga, dancing, poetry reading and “gi” (energy) exercising (shown in the photo).

So successful have these programs been that the Korean government plans to have 34 healing forest centres in operation by 2017, one close to all major cities. So far this policy, based as it is on the demonstrated value of nature as a public health resource, has increased visits to forest from 9.4 million in 2010 to 12.8 million in 2013. This is an extraordinary increase given that the comparable trend in Australia and other Western countries is in the other direction.

I wonder if I will ever see “bush healing centres” in national parks or reserves in or near Sydney and other Australian major cities and towns?

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A recent newspaper article attacked “baby boomer” empty nesters for staying in their detached houses after their families had left home instead of downsizing and making their houses available to younger people with families. As detached houses are in very short supply, so the argument goes, older singles and couples should release their free standing houses to the market. This would enable a greater number of families to enjoy the benefits of more indoor and outdoor living space.

Sounds reasonable?

Well, maybe – if it is indeed the case that younger people want bigger houses with front- and backyards.

Of course they do, you might think. Who wouldn’t want a big house with a spacious kitchen and living area and separate bedrooms for each of the kids, not to mention a garage for each of the family cars?

And as for front- and backyards, aren’t they part of the ideal modern family home? Well, they might be for some, but compare these photos of a new development on the left and an older suburb.

Loss of backyard

Loss of backyard b

Compared with the older suburb, the newer development has a much larger dwelling footprint and fewer trees. Instead of presenting as a patchwork of roofs and greenery, it is mainly roofs.

What the photos illustrate is a trend that has been going on since the early 1990s according to Griffith University’s Tony Hill. Since then, freestanding houses with big backyards have ceased to be built. Instead, the clear preference has been to build almost to the boundaries of the available land – and then enclose the site with high, opaque wooden or metal fences that provide privacy at the expense of outlook.

Freestanding houses and backyards are fast becoming a threatened species.

Even where the sizes of building blocks have remained much as they always have been (the “quarter acre” – actually eighth of an acre – block ), the same trend is occurring. People are choosing to build big and exclude green space. Here is an example from my own street.

IMG_2163The front yard will become a drive and the backyard a swimming pool surrounded by concrete or paving.

The finished house will certainly look very different from the original houses in the streetIMG_2165 like this one.

Practical or economic necessity is not all that is at work here. We are also seeing evidence of a general shift in the psyche of urban dwellers. We are succumbing to the belief that our “natural habitat” is the human-designed, developed environment. This allows us to tolerate the growing reality that the modern city is dominated by profit-driven development, marked by environmental degradation and disconnection from nature.

But as biophilic design guru, Stephen Kellert, reminds us,

This contemporary reality does not diminish people’s inherent need to affiliate with nature as a necessary basis for health, productivity, and well-being.

It does make it harder, however, to get home the message that by adopting a pro-nature approach to design and development, it is possible to restore an environment – even in our urban areas – where nature is still on hand to nurture and enrich the human body, mind and spirit.

And rescuing the suburban backyard from the threat of extinction has to be part of that process.

Many of my previous posts have directly and indirectly explored the place of the backyard in maintaining a connection with nature. A backyard is obviously critically important for building nature and outdoor activities into the lives of children – a theme of posts such as An authentic childhood, Nature play, An alarming message, and The campfire connection (with nature). For adults, having a backyard that contains a garden, even a small one, is hardly less important. The well-documented physical, psychological and social benefits of gardens and gardening are mentioned in such posts as Nature and wellness, The dream that can be a reality, and Urban density – the caution light is flashing.

Additionally, the backyard garden has a function and importance that goes beyond the interests of individuals and households. The presence of private gardens in aggregate brings significant advantages to the community, including:

  • contributing to clearing the air of pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and small particulates.
  • absorbing and sequestering atmospheric carbon.
  • increasing biodiversity – domestic gardens can exhibit a degree of planting density and variety that is not found elsewhere in urban areas, including playing fields and nature strips.
  • improving natural drainage and reducing the risk of excessive stormwater run-off.
  • combatting summer heat by lowering surface temperatures – by as much 5 degrees Celsius according to one Australian study.

Saving the backyard garden is not beyond the realms of possibility but it will involve a rethink of urban and household design by everyone, especially politicians, planners and developers. Far from being a radical move, it would be a return to traditional Australian values and the reversal of a trend that is, after all, only comparatively recent. And as Tony Hill rightly observes, It would also call upon people to relax and start enjoying life again, hardly a negative or puritanical goal.

 

 

 

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If you asked Australians to nominate their favourite TV comic character, the odds are that it Gary McDonaldwould be one created by this man, Gary McDonald.

His Norman Gunston, for example, continues to be recalled as a phenomenon of TV satire, and his hapless Arthur Beare in Mother and Son extracted bitter-sweet humour from a masterfully rendered love-hate relationship with a manipulative mother.

Gary McDonald as NormanGary McDonald mother and son

But this same Gary McDonald is also remembered with respect and admiration for his struggle with a very different persona – that of the “clown-who’s-crying-inside”.

A chronic sufferer from hyper-anxiety, he suffered a severe depressive episode in 1993 while attempting to revive The Norman Gunston Show. He responded well to cognitive-behaviour-therapy (CBT), learning in the process the importance of monitoring and constructively managing self-talk. Gary has drawn courageously and frankly on his experience to help others with mental-health problems and to advocate for improved mental health services.

In a recent ABC documentary for Mental Health Week, he once again shared his experiences Gary McDonald in natureand insights. The documentary showed him in the rural home to which he moved in order to sustain his recovery and safeguard his mental well-being. There he raises chooks, gardens, walks and goes fishing, revelling all the while in the isolation, seclusion, peace and beauty of his sanctuary.

I was very pleased that Gary linked his on-going mental well-being to his nature-connected way of life because there is overwhelming evidence that one of the best things we can do to maintain our mental health is to have regular doses of vitamin G (for green space).

There is also growing evidence that the efficacy of standard therapies such as CBT is improved if nature is added to the mix. In one recent study, 63 patients with depression were assigned to weekly CBT sessions in one of three different settings – an arboretum, a hospital or a community facility. The patients who had their therapy in the arboretum showed the greatest overall reduction in symptoms and the odds for their complete recovery was 20-30 % higher than was observed for medication alone. What’s more, the arboretum group also had a pronounced reduction in the physiological markers of stress (stress hormone levels, blood pressure, heart rate, for example). The researchers concluded that nature does not simply provide a congenial setting for therapy it can be therapeutic in and of itself.

Gardening is one way by which the therapeutic effects of nature can be tapped. In a study from Norway, patients with moderate – tending to severe – depression were engaged in sowing, germinating, potting, planting, cultivating and cutting vegetables and flowers for three hours twice a week for a total of 12 weeks. The patients were also free to indulge in other garden activities such as strolling around, admiring the plots and looking for insect life. Depression scores were found to have improved significantly and were still lower at follow-up testing three months later.

A particularly interesting supplementary finding was that improvement was associated with “fascination” – the extent to which patients were “caught up” or “lost in” the gardening activities. This may have something to do with the fact that when our minds are focussed on Negative self talk ban activity we are less likely to engage in damaging self-talk or rumination (repetitive negative thoughts about oneself).

Rumination is known to be a risk factor for mental illness, so curbing it is a very useful therapeutic strategy. A team headed by Gregory Bratman from Stanford University found that something as simple as a 90 minute walk in a natural environment (compared with a comparable walk in an urban one) reduced the subjects’ reported level of rumination as well as the neural activity in the area of the brain linked to the risk of mental illness.

According to Bratman and his team, these results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.

I would go further and say categorically that such areas are essential for mental health. Some of the best-established effects of urbanization concern mental well-being. Evidence from several studies indicates that city dwellers have a substantially increased risk of anxiety disorders (by 21%) and mood disorders (39%). For the major psychotic illness, schizophrenia, incidence is almost double in people born and brought up in cities. The social stress of city life may be an important factor accounting for these differences.

We can’t all be like Gary McDonald and make our home in a rural sanctuary, but we can make greater use of the natural areas and green spaces that may be available to us. And we can all support efforts to make our cities greener and to preserve surviving natural areas.

Sitting in a park 2Forest destruction b Tarkine

In a society estranged from the natural world, our sanity becomes imperilled, no matter the material comforts and conveniences we enjoy. By contrast, a life of affirmative relation to nature carries the potential to be rich and rewarding. (Stephen Kellert, Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World)

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Thanks to the folk who accepted my invitation to share how they had fun as kids.

I thought afterwards that it might have been easier for you to recall one or two particularly memorable play experiences from childhood – ones that springs straight to mind.

When I set myself this task, these are some of the memories that flooded back:

  • Jumping from places that looked very high to my young eyes
  • Climbing 10 or so metres up a very straight poplar tree
  • Hurtling down the side of a hill on a home-made sled
  • Scrambling up openings in sandstone cliff lines
  • Investigating the holes of trap-door spiders
  • Swimming in quiet stretches of rivers and creeks

The fact that these are all outdoor activities does not mean that I didn’t enjoy playing indoors, especially with my “Ezy-Bilt” construction kit, my train set and my chemistry set. But it is significant that my most vivid memories are of outdoor play.

It is also very significant that all the activities on my list were risky to some degree. They all meet the scientific criteria of risk-taking play – thrilling and exciting activity that includes the risk of physical injury. The risk can be associated with height, speed, dangerous objects (e.g., knives, pointed sticks), dangerous places (e.g., cliffs, water, trees), body contact (as in rough and tumble play) and unfamiliar settings (where there is a risk of becoming lost).

risk taking eDSC00492

Mostly, I shared the activities on my list with other kids including girls now and then.

Modern parents may be a little horrified that my mum and dad allowed me to engage so freely in risk-taking play. They might find it hard to believe that my parents were content to monitor my play rather than supervise it. Certain limits and conditions were set, but it was left largely to me to stay within those limits and to meet those conditions. And this approach to parenting was typical for children of my generation.

These days close parental management and supervision of children’s leisure activities are the norm. The pendulum has swung so far, in fact, that there is much talk in the scientific literature of “hyper-parenting”, which shows up in four increasingly common parenting styles:Helicopter parents

  • “helicopter parents” who try to protect their children from all dangers and solve all of their problems;
  • “little emperor parents” who endeavour to satisfy all of their children’s material desires;
  • “tiger parents” who push their children to be exceptional in everything they attempt and;
  • parents who practise “concerted cultivation” (e.g., scheduling their children into several out-of-school sporting, cultural and academic programs in order to give them an advantage).

There is no way that my mum and dad were hyper-parents – but neither were they neglectful nor irresponsible. In giving me scope to play freely and sometimes a little riskily outdoors, they actually facilitated my physical, mental and social development in a number of very important ways. I say this not out of loyalty to them or as a sentimental gloss on my memories of a very distant childhood but squarely in the light of what research has revealed about the contribution that risk-taking outdoor play makes to healthy child development.

Time overparenting

Here’s a snapshot of that contribution based on the findings of two high quality reviews of refereed research reports.

The positive effects of outdoor risk-taking play are:

  • Increases physical activity to levels that reduce the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease
  • Fosters the development of basic or fundamental movement skills basic (those required for activities like running, jumping, throwing, kicking, balancing and twisting)
  • Encourages ongoing participation in outdoor play
  • Reduces the incidence of sedentary behaviour
  • Develops the ability to detect and assess risk and adapt behaviour accordingly
  • Increases self esteem
  • Develops social skills and the ability to deal with conflict
  • Increases self-reliance and independence
  • Improves emotional control, especially the management of anxiety and stress
  • Strengthens personal autonomy
  • Increases the tolerance of uncertainty and the readiness to try new things

There are slight differences in the risk-taking behaviour of girls and boys (girls are less into rough and tumble play for example), but the benefits for both genders are much the same.

BUT, what about the dangers of injury, abduction and assault associated with risky play? I can imagine many young parents asking. An understandable question, which I think any reasonable parent is entitled to ask.

Happily the answer from research is as encouraging as it is clear. First – “Broken bones and head injuries unfortunately do happen, but major trauma is uncommon. Most injuries associated with outdoor play are minor”. Second – “The odds of total stranger abduction are about 1 in 14 million (based on Royal Canadian Mounted Police reports) and being with friends outdoors may further reduce this number”.

Despite the availability of such reassurances, hyper-parenting shows no signs of falling out of favour in Australia and in other Western countries. The detrimental impact this is having on the physical health of our children is well documented. The mental health consequences may turn out to be equally worrying.

Writing in the American Journal of Play, Peter Gray points out that in the United States and other developed nations, the sharp decline over the past half century in children’s free play has paralleled a marked increase in the prevalence of anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism among children, adolescents, and young adults. He makes a strong case for saying that the decline in free play has contributed to this rise in young people’s mental health problems.

He summarises his case in this way:

Free play functions as the major means by which children (1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.

If Gray is correct, and I believe he is, how children play is not just a concern and responsibility for parents; it is an issue for all of us. There are actions, political and otherwise, that we all can take to promote healthy play in childhood — getting behind movements to “green” our cities and to “naturalise” children’s playgrounds, for example.

 

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