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Why parents should encourage their children to play outdoors in winter

Winter may not be the most favoured time of year to get outdoors but there are a host of benefits to spending time in the fresh air. Dr Fiona Holland and Dr Caroline Harvey, Lecturers in Psychology at the University of Derby, discuss why parents should encourage their children to play outside in winter.

By The Corporate Communications Team - 19 January 2018

What are the benefits of spending time outdoors in winter?

Connecting with nature is good for us. Research has shown many benefits for adults and children including increasing health, well-being, restoration, personal growth, creativity and inspiration. A connection to nature involves the feelings people have in nature or towards nature. This might include the emotional affinity they feel towards nature or how much they feel they are a part of the natural world. Contact with nature has been shown to counteract stress and anxiety, and to help recovery from illness. The restorative benefits of nature have also been shown to be greater than those from other forms of leisure activities, such as sports or entertainment. It is thought that this effect occurs due to the soft, effortless fascination of nature that allows time for reflection, versus the intense and riveting attention required for other activities such as watching TV or playing computer games.

What are the barriers for people getting outdoors?

Recent studies suggest that parents appear to have lost confidence in where to go to play outside and what to do with their children when they get there.

Other barriers to playing outside include the lack of access to green spaces, a risk-averse society and increased indoor technologies, resulting in more and more children living sedentary, indoor lives, divorced from their natural surroundings.

It has been reported by Richard Louv, author of ‘Last Child in the Woods’, that 11-15 year olds spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen. Children’s knowledge and understanding of nature is also decreasing.

For example, in 2007, words such as bluebell, conker and acorn were taken out of the Junior Oxford dictionary and replaced with words including MP3 player and blog. In 2009, Natural England published the Childhood and Nature survey, which stated that less than 1 in 10 children regularly play outdoors in wild spaces. Richard Louv labelled this phenomenon Nature Deficit Disorder.

What can be done to get children outdoors more?

To address these concerns, a recent project in the Midlands has been highlighting the importance of playing outside for children and their care-givers and shows that even simple activities done on a short-term basis can reap rewards.

The Play Wild project was co-ordinated by a variety of East Midlands based organisations including Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, Peak District National Park, Eastern Moors partnership, The National Trust, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, The RSPB, Natural England and was evaluated by researchers at the University of Derby.

The Play Wild project targeted families with children under the age of five in socio-economically deprived areas in the Midlands. The families engaged in nature-based activities led by the partner organisations. By experiencing fun outdoors with their children, parents’ confidence levels and nature connection scores all significantly improved.

The project showed the benefit of even short sessions of play outside as a family – the children have fun and the parents increase their connectedness to nature. When given ideas of what to do with their children, the parents feel more equipped with activities that engage their children in a positive way and they can recreate and add to these in future adventures outside. Building dens for animals, bug hunting, playing hide and seek, and lots of other great interactive ideas were enjoyed in the Play Wild session.

How can parents encourage their children to play outside?

Parents can encourage their children to play outdoors in very simple ways. This might involve going outdoors to see what sounds they can hear – for example listening to birds singing or the noise of the wind in the trees. You can spend as much or as little time as you like outdoors, even just 15 minutes is long enough to spend some time noticing nature, or you can incorporate it into your daily activities.

For example, on the walk to school see how many different plants you can spot growing along the way or notice the birds singing. If your children don’t seem interested in spending time outdoors and would rather spend time on a mobile device, encourage them to take some photos of any aspects of nature that they might notice while they are outside. They could even have a go at creating their own nature-related video clip.

What activities can children play outdoors?

School holidays can be a great time to find new places to visit, see winter wildlife, and enjoy the fresh air. So, when you are planning your winter time off work, don’t forget to take some time to bundle up, grab your wellies and get outside!

In the East Midlands, there are hundreds of amazing outdoor events and places of natural beauty to visit. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of (or any) money, even simple activities in a local green space or park can be fun. You could try a game of hide and seek, build a little den in the woods for your cuddly toys or see how many different coloured leaves you can find. These activities don’t cost any money and can take as much or as little time up as you like. The Wildlife Trust and Derbyshire Wildlife Trust websites also provide details of different events and activities that you can get involved in.

So, why not add a few outdoorsy activities on your to-do list?

Do you spend time outdoors as a family? What are your favourite activities? Comment below and let us know.

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About the author

The Corporate Communications Team
University Press and PR

The Corporate Communications Team manage the University's Press and PR, putting forward academics, support staff and student representatives for 'expert comment' on different topics to local and national broadcast media. The team is highly experienced in communications and journalism - locally, regionally and nationally - as well as in-house and agency public relations.