Go outside and play kids

Little children’s activity and play levels too low

All across Australia, there are places close to home where children can interact with nature. Picture: Colin Murty.
All across Australia, there are places close to home where children can interact with nature. Picture: Colin Murty.

On any day, in every part of Australia, there’s a place close to home for a child to run around outdoors, dip a toe in the water or explore the leafy bush.

Even closer is their own back yard, where they can sprawl on the grass to make mud pies or put up a clotheshorse cubby. All unsupervised play, simple and free of charge, that forms part of many Australians’ cherished childhood.

It was the oddest of confluences that two unrelated events in Perth — held in the space of an hour within a short distance of each other — offered a perplexing insight into how playtime has changed. More worrying was what the events revealed about the reluctance of our institutions and supervising adults to do the simplest of things: let children play freely, and amid nature.

One event was the release of a report about the lack of time that childcare-aged children spend in active play. The second was the launch of a “nature play” program for three to five-year-olds to experience nature, under supervision and inside a multi-million-dollar fenced playground.

First came the launch of a landmark study, Child’s Play: Supportive Childcare Environments for Physical Activity. It was held in the most idyllic of child play settings, the banks of the Swan River.

Lead researcher Hayley Christian described how activity monitors had been put on 1600 children from more than 100 childcare centres across Perth in a two-year study run jointly by the Heart Foundation and University of Western Australia.

The monitors picked up any kind of movement the children made during the course of a week. What it showed was that most children — 66 per cent — were not undertaking the level of daily physical activity required for healthy growth and development.

Commonwealth guidelines recommend at least three hours of physical activity a day for small children, and preferably more; the surveyed children were active for only two hours a day on average.

“It is concerning that so many young children are falling short of meeting national physical activity guidelines,” Christian says.

“What is really important with young children is active play. It’s also about having fun with fast-paced activities like riding bikes, dancing and playing hide-and-seek, as well as slower activities like playing in cubby houses, dress-ups and water play.”

A mother standing on the sidelines, who had restrained her small son from climbing a tree until after the launch, admitted to being surprised that son was among the less active cohort. “I thought when he went to childcare he didn’t stop moving.”

So what are childcare centres doing, if not permitting a small child to play and be active? Christian says some centres may have forgotten the intrinsic value of play to a child’s social, physical and emotional wellbeing. “Maybe physical activity has slipped off the radar a little bit.”

Only 16 per cent of childcare centres had a written physical activity policy, and several lacked indoor play equipment or the space to allow kids to run around freely. Others needed more trees, shrubs and edible gardens to encourage active play.

Yet how hard is it to encourage play? Christian wonders, too. “My kids would go out on the back lawn with the old saucepan that had lost its non-stick, a spatula, and mud pies and the ‘cooking’ went on for hours,” she says.

“In one generation, as we’ve all got busier, we’ve forgotten the basics of play. You hear it all the time, people saying, ‘When I was a child, we’d leave the house in the morning and wouldn’t come back until it was dark and we were hungry.’ ”

Kids are naturally active, says Heart Foundation consultant and UWA adjunct professor Trevor Shilton. “Children are not sedentary beings and unfortunately it’s the environments that we construct for them that makes them sedentary.

“When you send them outside they find a stick, a leaf, a ball, a pet. They’ll invent a game. If you sit them in front of a TV or an iPad, then children will sit.”

The important thing is to create opportunities for play, he says, and they don’t have to be elaborate. “At birthdays, give them a ball or boogie board, or bathers or a cricket bat. That’s more important than Xboxes and computer devices.”

The gap revealed in Child’s Play between actual and recommended activity levels is a concern in such small children, he says. “From a future health perspective, it’s very worrying for heart disease, diabetes and chronic diseases.”

The UWA research may recommend that physical activity policies be written in all childcare centres, but one is compelled to wonder why a policy is required to mandate child’s play.

The National Quality Standard for early childhood education ­places specific emphasis, 72 references in total, on the importance of play-based learning. They are contained in Australia’s pre-eminent early childhood document, Belonging, Being & Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia, embraced by federal and state governments.

The document notes that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child “recognises children’s right to play and be active participants in all matters affecting their lives”. Yet the chance to play is disappearing in the early years of schooling, says Sandra Hesterman, director of early childhood education at Perth’s Murdoch University.

“One telltale sign is when you walk into the pre-primary classroom, which has become like Year 1 would have been 20 years ago,” she says. “What the room used to have were painting easels, block play, a home corner where you might put up a tent for children to pretend they’re going camping. Now you’re likely to find less free play, with children often sitting down at their own desk, and they’re quiet.”

Children as young as three are expected to respond to flash cards to rote-learn sounds and words. “It’s definitely a case of ‘schoolification’, where the narrative is about getting children ready for school-entry literacy and numeracy testing,” Hesterman says.

So alarmed were early childhood experts in Western Australia that in 2013 four organisations — Early Childhood Australia, the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education, Early Years in Education Society and the Early Childhood Teachers Association — formed an alliance to push for a WA play strategy.

“Our concern was the demise of play in favour of more schooling, more testing, more adult ­direction of children,” says Hesterman. “Play-based learning is being marginalised and parents are getting caught up in the spin.”

The value of child-initiated play is so diminished that governments may need to step in and restore it as a child’s birthright, she says. The alliance has approached WA Education Minister Sue Ellery, asking her to work with them on creating a WA play strategy.

Early Childhood Australia’s chief executive Samantha Page says the strategy eventually may be modelled nationally in a bid to alert the highest levels of government to the need to restore play-based learning.

It would be a welcome move, says Bev Fluckiger, associate professor in early childhood education at Griffith University in Brisbane. Her research into 112 schools across Queensland found “increased formalisation of learning in classrooms, instead of ­encouraging activity and curiosity and investigation in young children”. She thinks a national statement about the importance of play “would be an excellent thing”.

“There are some governments that are mindful and want to address it, but there are other jurisdictions that could look closer at age-appropriate pedagogy.”

If play is being “schoolified”, then nature play increasingly is being commodified into a special activity conducted beyond the back yard or local park.

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv argues that the simple act of taking a child under 10 for six to 10 playful walks in the bush is enough for that child to form a lifelong bond with nature. Yet a rather different formula for nature play emerged at the second event attended by The Weekend Australian, 1km down the road from the UWA launch.

It was the unveiling of Zippy’s Kings Park Adventures for three to five-year-olds, held in Perth’s vast bush parkland that lies on the city’s doorstep.

Bigger than New York’s Central Park, Kings Park offers children and adults 400ha of parkland to roam in. Bush tracks invite you to wander through the park’s banksia woodland; clusters of play equipment are located on rolling lawns and near trickling watercourses. But within the park is a fenced-off area called Naturescape, containing an artificially constructed wilderness with a rock-filled stream, cubby building areas, elaborate rope challenges and elevated walkways — all at a cost nudging $13 million after a recent renovation.

Each year, thousands of families and about 30,000 schoolchildren visit Naturescape for a “nature adventure”. But before they enter, they are confronted by a dozen signs telling them how and how not to interact with nature.

It starts with a warning about various “natural hazards” that require adult supervision at all times. “For your safety, wade in to a waterhole — but knee-deep only! Please don’t let your child sit in the water — with or without a nappy.”

“Challenging environments and natural hazards are present.” “Please don’t pick flowers.” “Dangerous activities — please don’t throw rocks or throw anything from tall structures.”

“Close supervision is a must here,” warns a final sign. “There are tall climbing structures, open water, large rocks and other features that are intentionally designed to challenge young visitors. Make sure your child stays within their capability.”

One wonders how all this fits the Early Years Learning Framework, which says nature-play ­spaces should “invite open-ended interactions, spontaneity, risk-taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature”.

“When we opened Naturescape we had no signs,” Kings Park visitor services manager Jacqui Kennedy explains. “But we had to create messages because the adults needed to be educated about what they could and couldn’t do in this environment.”

Zippy’s Adventures is the park’s new eight-week program. “The idea is to help these children connect with nature,” Kennedy says, “so in their formative years they develop the knowledge and attitudes that are formed by the age of 12. It will help them to understand this outdoor world around them, and appreciate plants and animals they see in their own back yards.”

But where’s the need to create such controlled nature settings for children to play in? “I think when we were raising our own children there were more green spaces, they had more freedom to go and explore and discover,” she says.

“When you look at children today, they don’t get out into green spaces very often and they don’t get the freedom we were given as children.”

Excursions to nature playgrounds and child-focused theme parks have a valid role to play, says the Heart Foundation’s Shilton, but they are unlikely to have an enduring impact on child activity levels. “Exercise is not a special occasion that you travel to do once a month,” he says. “We’re blessed with some great locations in Perth, but what matters most is what happens throughout the 24-hour cycle in our childcare centres, schools and in our homes.”

UWA’s Christian thinks a visit to Naturescape may at least act to jog parents’ memories of outside play and give them an excuse to turn off the TV or laptop games.

“It’s a reminder to parents that ‘oh, the kids are so happy here, they’re not saying they’re bored’. And it might remind parents that ‘there’s a pretty good park around the corner where we can take the kids to play’.”

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