Do you remember the joy of playing outdoors as a child? The smell of campfire in the cool night, the dirt on your clothes, the excitement of catching a fish, the rush of running in a game of bullrush, the challenge of climbing a high wall, the wonder of kayaking in the sparkling sea, the fun of racing down a hill in a cart you made yourself… These are some of the memories that many of us nostalgically cherish from our childhood. But what about our kids? Are they getting enough outdoor experiences in this digital age?
According to The University of Auckland, most Kiwi kids are spending too much time on screens and not enough time in nature. The Ministry of Health recommends that children under two years should have no screen time at all, children aged two to five should have less than an hour per day, and children aged five to 17 should have less than two hours per day. However, the 2019/20 New Zealand Health Survey shows that 88% of children aged from under one to 14 exceed these guidelines. The older the children get, the more screen time they have, with over 90% of 10 to 14-year-olds watching screens for more than two hours per day.
This is a worrying trend, as screens and digital devices can have negative effects on children’s development. Dr Low, a scientist supported by the Wright Family Foundation, says that screen time can impair children’s and teenagers’ attention span and emotional regulation.
So how can we help our kids have a better balance between screens and nature? One of the best things we can do is to encourage them to go outside and explore the natural world. Nature offers many opportunities for kids to grow, learn, and have fun. By exposing them to different environments, we can help them broaden their horizons and develop their perspectives. Nature-based learning and education can also enhance their academic performance and critical thinking skills. When children miss out on outdoor play, they lose valuable experiences that can enrich their physical, mental, and cognitive development. Outdoor play can foster many skills such as creativity, socialisation, and environmental awareness.
The Department of Conservation’s National Education Strategy highlights the importance of connecting children and young people with nature, and teaching them conservation knowledge, values, and skills. Research shows that children who have regular contact with nature develop empathy and love for the natural world. The best way to engage and inspire children is to let them explore and discover nature in their own way, in familiar places. This can help them cultivate a sense of place and a sense of wonder. Studies also suggest that early childhood experiences in nature are crucial for shaping lifelong conservation values.
According to Richard Louv, the author of the bestseller Last Child in the Woods, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows how free play in nature has a huge impact on health. He cites dozens of studies from around the world that reveal the benefits of regular outdoor time for children.
For example, a study at the University of Essex found that just five minutes of “green exercise” can improve mental wellbeing and self-esteem, especially for young people. Another study by the American Medical Association concluded that outdoor play enhances children’s cognitive, social, and emotional skills. They said: “Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors.”
Playing outside also helps children learn about themselves and the world around them. As Moss, a naturalist and author, says: "Nature is a tool to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves." He explains that climbing a tree, for instance, teaches children how to take responsibility and assess risks. He adds: “Falling out of a tree is a very good lesson in risk and reward.”
But don’t worry, there is hope for our kids. Here at The Y, we want children to have real adventures in nature, not in playgrounds. We have forests and open spaces where children can find tree branches, muddy slopes, kayaks, campfires, games, and free play. The places are inspiring and exciting. Children can set their own goals, assess their own dangers, take their own actions, have their own adventures, and learn from them. And what they learn can’t be taught.
The Y supports outdoor activities and programmes for children of all ages and abilities. The Y promotes well-being, belonging, discovery, education, movement, and nature. We believe that every child deserves the opportunity to connect with nature and enjoy its benefits. Children are discovering the joys of nature, free play and adventure at our camps that run every holidays. With Camp Adair and Shakespear Lodge active and excited to welcome children, the options available through The Y to expand a child’s sense of the world are endless.