“I still remember we had an old swing in our garden that my neighbours and I pretended was a time machine,” Asha, 36, recalls wistfully. “Everyone who got their turn on it was transported to a completely different time zone or universe. Oh, the fun we had!”
Now mum to Sarvesh, 3, and Suriya, 6, Asha wishes that her boys would enjoy the kind of childhood she had ― carefree days that were mostly spent outdoors. But instead of chasing butterflies or climb trees, her sons prefer staying indoors to play video games, reading books or watching TV. When her family ventures out, they tend to hop from one megamall to the next and the boys will get some exercise at an indoor playground.
“The weather can be really harsh sometimes, so we do tend to gravitate towards air-conditioned places. Now that my sons have grown up only knowing a lifestyle of indoor fun, I don’t even know how to go about introducing the outdoors to them,” laments Asha.
Unfortunately, Asha’s story is the norm in Singapore. More and more families are bringing their kids’ playtime indoors, so as to beat the heat or avoid dirt. However, what parents don’t realise is that our children are losing out a lot by not going out in the sunshine.
“The outdoors offers an environment perfectly shaped to develop human sensory skills.”
The importance of being one with nature
Childhood is the time when we get prepared for independent survival, even though we are very much a social species, notes parenting expert Cornelia Dahinten. “The outdoors offers an environment perfectly shaped to develop human sensory skills.”
When they are out in nature, kids are exposed to different types of flora and fauna and the also learn a whole host of skills that will come in handy as they grow up and into adulthood. Unstructured physical play, which is mostly done outdoors is also a great way to destress.
“Playing in playgrounds are fundamental for healthy and competent human development. Games like climbing, running, hiding and playing balls teach kids skills such as anticipation and prediction, problem solving, risk assessment and learning how to overcome fear,” says Dahinten.
Climbing and running will also help junior increase his stamina and improve cardio vascular strength. When he’s playing with friends, your tyke will also learn cognitive skills such as how to position himself in a group or finding a solution everyone in the group is happy with it. Mastering these skills will make junior feel empowered and boost his confidence and self-esteem.
Another great reason to spend time in the open ― the health benefits associated with it. Being exposed to dirt boosts immune systems, children who spend more time outside are also at lower risk for developing myopia at a young age.
A quarter of Singapore children become short-sighted by age 10. According to a study by the Singapore Eye Research Institute and National University of Singapore, 70 per cent of Singaporean teenagers between the ages of 11 and 18 are myopic.
The rising incidence of myopia in children is linked directly to their spending less time outdoors. Concurring, Dahinten adds, “Your visual cortex needs the opportunity to look close and at a distance frequently and being outdoors helps with this.” So, junior’s eyesight will be affected if he doesn’t get enough opportunities to do so.
Is Singapore made for “outdoorsy” fun?
Many Singaporean parents lament that being an urban jungle, the city does not offer enough “outdoorsy” experiences for families.
Dahinten disagrees. “Singapore is such an amazingly green city. There is so much opportunity for outdoor play,” says the mum of three. “I never found it hard, I always felt it made life so much easier to just take them outside. What I think is the bigger issue is that parents are expected to watch and monitor their children very closely 24/7 up to quite an old age. It leaves no opportunity for kids to experience risk and failure.”
If you think about it, Singapore teems with nature parks, playground and reservoirs. Family-friendly spots include West Coast Park playground, Botanic Gardens, Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden, MacRitchie Reservoir, Bukit Batok Nature Reserve, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, the Zoo, Jurong Bird Park, Pasir Ris Park and Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, just to name a few!
“Sometimes, you don’t even need to head out into nature,” points out Dahinten. “Playing around neighbourhood shops, at the smaller playgrounds or just at void decks also gives children the same benefits. It does not have to be very complicated and you can do this every day.”
As for the sweltering weather, Dahinten has this to say, “Children are used to the heat, especially if they’re born in Singapore ― it’s a good thing to sweat. The tropical weather is no reason at all to stay inside.”
How to have a successful outdoor experience with your child
Convinced that you and the brood should be spending more time outside after reading this, but don’t know where to start? Dahinten lists five simple ways to kick-start your nature rambles.
“A little bump or injury should not have to be a reason to leave the playground, it is part of the package of learning.”
TIP #1 BRING ALONG A STROLLER
This is especially helpful if you have smaller children as they can nap in the stroller. “It also makes it easier to transport a tired and exhausted child and helps you manage dangerous situations with slightly wilder children, such as crossing big and busy roads,” she adds. Strollers are also perfect for carrying all your kid-related essentials such as water bottles, extra clothing, a diaper bag etc.
TIP #2 BRING BACKUP
Speaking of child-related essentials, don’t leave home without making sure you have enough water and snacks. Bring extra if you can, just in case! “Also if your commute to a particular park is a long one, bring some entertainment such as a couple of little books,” suggests Dahinten. These will also come in handy if you’re planning a long walk around a nature reserve or just around your estate.
TIP #3 GET SET TO CARRY YOUR CHILD
Being outdoors can over stimulate a child, so junior may want to be in mummy’s or daddy’s safe arms. But since holding a child will get tiring after a whilem which could ruin your outdoor experience, slings and wraps are handy. “Slings and wraps usually create very calm children as it is the most natural way of baby transport with lots of physical contact,” explains Dahinten. “It also makes you extremely independent, especially if you’re handling more than one child. It can be hard to run after a toddler when you have a baby in a stroller. Running with a sling or wrap is no issue at all.” If you’re using a sling or wrap, pack a backpack with all your essentials.
TIP #4 PREP AN EMERGENCY PACK
Include first-aid essentials such as, plasters, a disinfectant spray and wound cream. “I always had a homeopathic remedy on me called arnica in gel or cream form, which stops bleeding and bruising,” says Dahinten. “Remember, a little bump or injury should not have to be a reason to leave the playground, it is part of the package of learning.”
TIP #5 GO AS A GROUP
It’s always great to go with other kids, Dahinten points out. The better junior knows these kids, the better the experience, since they need not get to know each other or overcome territory problems, something kids usually do when they first meet a peer. “This way, they can start playing immediately and will also be more motivated to go out,” she adds.
Cornelia Dahinten is a parenting expert and therapist who focuses on family, life and marriage coaching. She was based in Singapore for more than 10 years and is now in Switzerland, but still works with clients internationally via Skype. She can be reached at Info@theparentyouwanttobe.com.
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