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CHERYL PEEBLES: Our kids play outside less – but do we view our own childhoods through rose-tinted glasses?

Outdoor play is less popular today, but it's always worth doing. Photo: Shutterstock.
Outdoor play is less popular today, but it's always worth doing. Photo: Shutterstock.

We all know playing outdoors is a vital part of childhood.

I have fond memories of zipping about on my bike pretending to be CHiPs.

Other times I’d come home so caked in mud I’d try to hide my filthy clothes and hope my mum wouldn’t notice.

Sadly though, romping about outside isn’t as regular an occurrence as it should be for many kids.

In a survey about play habits for the Scottish Government, one in five parents who responded said their kids played outside just one day a week, or even less last year.

The pandemic continued to have an impact on play in 2021, although it’s not the first study to tell us that today’s children are playing outdoors less regularly than those before them.

But I wonder if we tend to look at our own childhood antics through rose-tinted glasses, forgetting about our own ‘screen time’.

And do we need to cut today’s kids and their parents a little more slack instead of preaching about the good old days when we only came home when it was time for tea?

Outdoor play isn’t always straightforward

Most parents want to ensure their offspring get plenty of exercise and fresh air, but sometimes environment can be a obstacle.

It’s not so easy to let kids out to play if you live in a high-rise with a dual carriageway for your neighbour.

Children have more technology competing for their attention. Photo: Shutterstock.

Work and other responsibilities can reduce the time families have to spend enjoying the outdoors too.

And in many households today, the competition for the local play park or football field comes from the xBox or the iPad.

I packed in plenty of screen time too.

When I wasn’t pretending to be Ponch from CHiPs, or playing on a tree swing fashioned from rope and a sturdy stick, I spent a lot of time watching my favourite films on VHS until the tape went crackly.

I’m pretty sure I knew the scripts for The Wizard of Oz and Dirty Dancing better than Judy Garland or Patrick Swayze did.

But it’s the times I was pedalling around with that CHiPs theme tune in my head that made me smile the hardest then.

Riding a bike is as much fun today. Photo: Shutterstock.

It still makes me smile thinking back now.

It might have educational merits, but you don’t often hear laughter when children are playing Minecraft.

And it’s the moments when they laugh so hard they have tears running down their face that today’s children are likely to remember.

So it is important to make sure they happen.

Outdoor play is worth the effort

As well as just being a whole lot of fun, getting outside and active is good for kids in so many ways.

According to NCT, the national charity for pregnancy, birth and early parenthood the benefits of outdoor play include:

  • Better sleep thanks to all that fresh air
  • Children learn through play and experiencing nature
  • Encourages a healthy lifestyle
  • Children who know about nature are more likely to care about the environment as adults
  • It’s good for parents when they join in – even a short walk with the kids is good for wellbeing

When I spoke to education consultant and nature kindergarten pioneer Dr Claire Warden, she told me the benefits of outdoor play make it a “no brainer”.

“We are not expecting children to be Ray Mears or Survivor children,” she told me, “but it’s about giving them an active childhood and time outside to experience risky play.”

It’s a matter of “making the effort”, she said.

And having fun is always worth the effort.

Cheryl Peebles is head of the Schools and Families team at The Courier and a mum of two.

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