Winding back to some of my favourite childhood memories, I keep returning to our huge and homely mulberry tree; the meeting place of our neighbourhood mob – a jolly crew of boys and girls, varying in ages, abilities and aptitudes, all bound by a feeling of belonging, purpose and pleasure.
My sisters and I were the lucky ones, for the tree was firmly rooted in our garden, adjacent to the fence that separated us from the local municipal electrical sub-station. It was an easy swing and jump over the fence for our mates, who gathered at the mulberry tree whenever the chance appeared.
The tree was privy to many hilarious recounts, and plots to prank some of the residents in the apartment buildings across the road. The enormous branches welcomed us, wide and beaconing, giving us refuge from the midday sun. A slightly precarious perch ensured we mastered the ways to hang on, or fall off. Permanent purple smudges, splinters, gashes, scrapes and scratches were no deterrent. They were affirming markers of our belonging to something special and much loved.
Albeit a long time ago, in a different kind of world, our childhood was never lonely or boring. It was perhaps a little risky and sometimes a tad daunting. But, because we were in it together, anything felt possible.
Why am I sharing this with you? Well, because I believe it provides a window into what so many of our young children are missing out on today. And I am sad for them. So much of the current research and recommendations for a wholesome childhood calls for us to find ways to offer young children opportunities to be outdoors, connect to nature, and to one another. The research also cautions parents and educators to take a step back and let our children step up and become more responsible decision-makers.
The over-scheduled, time-poor, techno-junkies, and highly pressured children of today are suffering, rather than flourishing. Anxiety, for one, is becoming more prevalent in younger children and is evidently disrupting holistic development. International conferences are offering expertise, techniques and strategies to attend to children who are not able to self-regulate, and whose learning and development is therefore compromised.
I don’t mean to judge or frighten you. Instead, I write this in the hope that I will remind you that little children are wired to imagine, to explore, to take measured risks. We are social beings, seeking out connection and a feeling of belonging. We cannot do this well if every waking moment is planned, if all our down-time is passive screen time, if we are alone in our exploration and hardly ever experience being above the ground, in a tree, on a swing, jumping, leaping and, yes, even falling.
The research demonstrates that children must engage with nature properly. It is not enough for them to just look at nature from afar. Being immersed in nature-play, where they are able to properly explore and rely on all their senses as they gain a sense of freedom and learn the skills to manage risks, is now commonplace amongst early years experts – whether they are psychologists, occupational and physical therapists, play therapists, educators, or paediatricians.
Children will come to master so many life-long skills when they play outside when they are young. They will learn to make decisions, problem-solve, self-regulate, build relationships, enhance their language, grow stronger bodies and freer minds. This is being understood now in the worlds of innovation and business.
Greg McKeown, founder and CEO of THIS Inc., a leadership and strategy design agency based in Silicon Valley, has dedicated his career to discovering why some people break through to the next level, and others don’t. He writes about the qualities that are now valued in the workplace above others and affirms:
“Play stimulates the parts of the brain involved in both careful, logical reasoning and carefree, unbound exploration.”
So, whilst play for some may be viewed as unimportant and a waste of time, it is, in fact, the key to every child’s success. I urge you – go and find that tree and give it a big, long hug. For it will not only lift your spirits, it will be the gift your child needs most.
About the author
Cathy Milwidsky is the Director of Early Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW