It was the last day of a week-long holiday and although it was mid-morning we had already been to the beach. The beach had been beautiful.
The sun was warm and the ocean had sparkled in the morning light. Our children, ages three and one, had played happily for hours, racing along the sand and jumping in the wash of waves. Now they sat happily on the veranda, playing with a little blue scooter. Only stopping to watch the Kookaburras swoop down from the squiggly gum trees in search of worms or skinks in the grass.
Sitting on the veranda of my parent’s holiday house, watching our children delight in nature, my husband and I decided to do it. We would take our children outside for three hours every day for a year. Part of the decision was motivated by the lovely outdoor moments from our family holiday—the wonderful bush walks, ocean swims and BBQs under the stars. We hoped we could bring these types of experiences into our everyday routine.
We were also motivated by a sense of unease about the disconnection of children from the natural world. We had read reports of obesity, ADHD and screen-addiction in children as young as two. One article reported that Australian children were some of the least active in the world. We wanted something different for our children.
When we got home from the holiday, we started to make changes, weaving more outdoor time into our lives. We stopped going to the park for an hour and instead, we went for three or four. I stopped turning on the TV in the afternoon when the kids were tired. Instead, I took them out to ride their bikes in the street. We stopped our weekly shop at the supermarket and instead we went to the local farmer’s markets. There, the kids could play on the grass in the sun, while I filled up our basket with cartons of eggs, cucumbers, carrots and strawberries.
I never planned activities to do outside. If I was organized, I would throw a bucket or a ball in the car. But usually, I wasn’t. It was hard enough to get clothes and nappies, sandwiches and water bottles. But I didn’t need to worry. The kids found plenty to do once we got out. They played with sticks. They played hide and seek. They climbed up and down rocks. The rocks became ships. Ezra became the captain and Phoebe, his crew. Later they became explorers, collaborators, scientists, snakes, wallabies, dinosaurs—friends.To our surprise, the kids stopped asking for the iPad. They stopped asking to watch TV. After a while, they started noticing the birds. Phoebe was only one, but she had soon learned the names of all the different birds that visited our backyard. There were the Kookaburras, the rainbow lorikeets, the pink galahs, the blue bowerbirds and the white-faced heron who liked to walk along our roof tiles. Outside our children would run. They would chase each other or ride their bikes for hours. And soon they started asking to go to bed earlier.
On one warm spring night, the little boy from next door called out to Ezra across the fence. “Ezra, have you had your dinner yet? Do you want to come back out and play?” Ezra stuck his head out the back-door and called back, “Sorry Lucas, I can’t. I’m tired and I’m going to bed.” It was 5.15pm.
A growing body of research confirms what we discovered in our year-long experiment: spending time outside is very good for you. And extremely good for your children. Most importantly, when children play outdoors they are more active. And being active in early childhood supports the development of the heart and lungs and helps maintain a healthy weight.
When things like that happened, my husband, Nick, would say, “If I wasn’t seeing this with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it.” Taking the kids outside was like some kind of parenting magic. It made everything easier. We had happier kids who were more fun to be around. Outside, they played more creatively and they rarely argued. As the year progressed, we found that we were calmer, less stressed and more grounded.
The way children move their bodies outdoors— for example, running on uneven surfaces, climbing trees or digging in the sand— is so beneficial to their development, that pediatric occupational therapist, Angela Hanscom, recommends that all children play outside for three hours a day. Playing outside is also associated with improved attention and cognitive function in children.
Then there’s the clean air. Studies show that, in most neighborhoods, indoor air has two to five times more pollutants than the air outside. And the dirt is good for you too. Exposure to dirt in early childhood boosts immunity— immunologists believe it’s probably one reason kids who are raised on farms develop fewer allergies. A handful of dirt is full of tiny bacteria and fungi that scientists now believe are extremely beneficial to health. Exposure to one such bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been shown to boost the IQ of rats. The same bacteria stimulates the production of serotonin in the brain, which acts as a natural antidepressant.Spending time in the sun increases vitamin D in the body which strengthens bones and muscles. And the sunlight—which is much brighter than indoor light—helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms, making it easier to fall asleep at night. It turns out even the view is good for your eyes. Australian scientists have discovered that a global increase in myopia in children can be attributed to the amount of time children spend indoors. Want to prevent the development of short-sightedness in your child? One potential solution is easy, the researchers suggest, make sure they spend ten to fifteen hours outside per week.
Our goal was to spend three hours outside every day for a year. And—apart from a handful of days of sickness or interstate travel—we did it. On most days we spent much more than three hours outside. With the help of a couple of camping trips, we averaged 38 hours outside per week, almost 2000 hours in the year.
Now that the year is done, I often think back to that very first morning on the veranda. I can see my children, with their sun-bleached hair, entranced by the movements of the Kookaburras. If I close my eyes, I start to remember other moments from Our Year Outdoors. The fire we built when we camped on a mountain, the night we watched the full moon rise into the October sky, the wallaby who hopped right up to us to show off the pretty Joey in her pouch. There are many more of these moments. Moments of wonder, of connection—of joy. A thousand moments we might have missed if we had stayed indoors.
PLENARY KEYNOTE TO THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS – Richard Louv
Photo credits: Hannah Alexander