When mum and blogger Hannah Alexander set out last year to spend three hours a day outside with her children, every day, they were just one and three years old.
She wasn’t an outdoors junkie, more of a homebody, and some may say she was a little crazy to attempt it. But as a teacher who had read the research, Hannah knew it could make a difference to her children’s development and health.
She was right; throughout the year her son and daughter’s behaviour and physical development improved, and the benefits far outweighed the challenges.
“My children were 1 and 3 so up until that point we stayed home most of the time, I was conscious of getting the kids to have their naps at home in their own bed, and we might go out for half an hour or an hour to the park in the afternoon.
“They love being outside where they can run and play. It was never a battle.”
“But afterwards it completely changed. We would get up in the morning and pack a picnic, and drive to the beach and spend hours there. We lived on the Central Coast so we had places to go. We’d meet friends at the park, and when my son Ezra would come home tired from preschool, instead of putting on the TV we’d all go out to the street and ride our bikes.”
Although Hannah had three less hours in the home each day, she found ways to manage their new lifestyle, for example using the slow cooker to prepare easier meals. And her children loved it. One month they took their return-to-nature to new heights, by having a ‘Screen Free September’, and Hannah doesn’t regret one minute of it.
“They love being outside where they can run and play. It was never a battle,” she said.
The Benefits of Spending Time Outside
Research shows that outdoor play is linked to better learning and cognitive function, better language development, social interaction, memory and creative thinking.
And for Hannah, the most obvious benefit of spending three hours outside each day, was how much physical activity her kids were getting. As a result, they were far more settled in the evenings.
“They simply just run and move for hours,” she said. “They were much calmer and quieter inside, and went to sleep really quickly. In the entire year we didn’t have one tantrum. I found I was very calm too. It was almost like your stresses just floated away on the breeze.”
Hannah’s son Ezra was even cured of his fussy eating, because they shopped at the farmer’s markets instead of the supermarket, and he became much more interested in whole foods.
“There’s not a lot of packaged food at the farmers market,” said Hannah, “so instead of asking for tiny teddies or a chocolate bar, my kids would say ‘Can we have a carrot? Can we have a cucumber?’”
She also found that the many behaviours usually considered ‘naughty’ indoors, are much more natural to do outside.
“We make parenting very difficult for ourselves because we have to say, ‘stop jumping on the couch’ and ‘please stop all that squealing’, ‘don’t make a mess’,” Hannah said. “But when you’re outside you don’t need to say those things. They can climb on the rocks and squeal as loud as they like and it doesn’t upset you. “
Why Too Much Time Inside is Bad For Kids
Childhood obesity is one of the top public health challenges according to the World Health Organisation, and when children are indoors too much, it also affects their physical development and fine motor skills.
Hannah has written about the phenomenon of declining motor skills in her blog.
“In the entire year we didn’t have one tantrum. I found I was very calm too.”
“In order for children to develop the small muscles that help them to hold a pencil or cut with scissors, children must first develop the large muscles in their abdomen, shoulders and back,” she writes. “They strengthen these large muscles through activities such as running, jumping, riding bikes and climbing trees. Because today’s children are spending less time playing outdoors, many more children are turning up to kindergarten essentially underdeveloped.”
While Hannah’s year of three-outdoor-hours-a-day concluded in April, she and her children are still keeping a one-hour daily minimum of outside time, and many days they achieve much more than that.
She is hoping her experience will encourage others to consider outdoor time as an essential ingredient in their childrens’ wellbeing.
Read about Hannah’s year of outdoor play at ouryearoutdoors.com.