By Dr. Khoo Boo Aik, Consultant Paediatrician, Sunway Medical Centre
While most parents were brought up with the fun and benefits of outdoor play and activities, we as parents today are reluctant to let our children to go outdoors and explore nature. Surveys of parents reveal that we worry about ‘stranger danger,’ crime, traffic accidents, and even the weather.
No doubt these are valid concerns. However, we have to take calculated risks like our parents had done for us, since outdoor play has shaped us into the holistic, resilient and adaptable individuals that we are today. Nowadays, children have very tight and structured schedules such as school, extracurricular activities, additional tuition classes, music lessons, sports, ballet dancing and so forth. These do not include the time spent for indoor activities like watching TV and using electronic gadgets.
With this modern sedentary and stressful lifestyle, we see an increasing number of health hazards among children such as childhood obesity and chronic psychosocial-mental health problems especially among the young adolescent age group.
Medical Benefits of Outdoors Play
In order to tackle this global chronic health issue, we have a take a proactive step to allow our children to have a ‘real’ childhood and to enjoy doing what they really enjoy; playing. By allowing our children to play outdoors and explore their surrounding nature, we will give them the opportunity to grow in all areas of their developmental milestones, which include gross and fine motor skills, speech-language communication skills, cognitive ability as well as their social-behavioral-emotional quotient. Being physically active also help to combat the rising trend of childhood obesity. Outdoor activities also give our children the opportunity to be close to nature, which will help them to live symbiotically with their natural surroundings. Research shows that healthy exposure to nature would reduce the risk of childhood allergy and improve body immunity.
Furthermore, by exposing their skin under natural sunlight while playing outdoors also help in vitamin D conversion, which is important for bone growth to maintain good body posture. Growth hormone is being secreted in the pulsatile manner during sleep and physical activities. Therefore, the balance between sleep and exercise will help to promote growth spurt in children especially during their puberty years.
There are many scientific evidences showing the medical benefits of outdoors play towards children’s developmental skills and physical health. Gross motor, fine motor skills and body coordination can be simply enhanced by activities such as cycling, swinging, jumping, climbing and skipping for younger children older kids and through sports such as swimming, football, badminton, tennis, table tennis, basketball and more for teenagers. By playing all these games, children will learn how to follow rules, exercise self-discipline, challenge themselves to do better each time they play, accept failure with attitude for self-improvement, encourage social interaction, communication and teamwork as well as just simply laugh while having fun playing together. These no doubt will inadvertently boost their self-confidence and enhance their mood. This will make them more confident and better at making a new friend.
With better self-esteem and mood control, children tend to do better academically. According to the American Academy of Paediatric (AAP), outdoor play can help children to focus and pay better attention in class especially among children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), thus improving their learning ability and school performance.
These outdoor plays are not just confined to sport activities, but rather the unstructured and free play without any objective or results to achieve. This type of play will really bring out our children’s true personality and character while feeling free to enjoy themselves without fear of failure or losing, as it is not about competing with one another but rather about enjoying each other’s company. Unstructured and free plays have proven to increase children’s creativity, ideas and imaginations, problem-solving skills, social communication skills as well as instilling leadership qualities. For examples, empty boxes, dry leaves or grasses and sticks can be turned into tree houses while exploring new path in the bushes or surrounding neighborhood can foster teamwork and a caring attitude, where children tend to stay close together as they figure their way out as a team. As adults, we have the tendency to interfere with most of our children’s plays and activities. However, it is good if we can just let them have the free will to decide among themselves especially on how to solve conflicts that occur while playing together.
We can just watch from a distance to make sure that their safety is not compromised. We as parents can then also spend time with one another to foster greater friendship among neighbors and at the same time allow our children to have a great time together.
Children need a well-balanced lifestyle just as we adults do. We should allow our children to spend a good amount of time to play outdoors, be it sports or unstructured free play which will help them to be physically fit with better focus and attention. This in turn will help in their cognitive development and academic achievement. They will also grow up to be more holistic individuals with healthy bodies, minds and souls.