Every now and then, someone will raise concerns about the safety of the outdoor nature of our programmes, and ask that we restrict or remove it.
Maybe you’ve heard of the new term to describe the young generation “strawberry generation” – nice to look at, but withers under heat? If we are not careful in the way we plan children’s development in an urbanised environment and of balancing safety with appropriate risk taking, we rob them of opportunities to become resilient, and we aid in the creation of another strawberry generation.
Even with programmes as young as for pre-schoolers, one of the key factors we hope to introduce in all our programmes is an outdoors experience or exposure to dirt and nature.
Perhaps you too have had a concerned parent or colleague feel that an outdoor programme is unsafe, or even unnecessary, and so I’m sharing this post in the hopes it will help others that might want to spread the benefits of outdoor play to healthy development and nurturing resilient children.
This philosophy closely relates to our 5G vision for society and our activities are built to nurture these values in students.
Eat dirt for a resilient immune system
Though there are many reasons why we seek to conduct classes outdoors, this is often the first aspect of outdoors work that we need to demystify and explain to other adults.
If you turn on the TV, you probably wouldn’t have to wait too long before seeing a commercial or a news report involving someone with a microscope showing us how we are surrounded by germs, bacteria and other scary things.
It’s understandable then, that many parents and educators believe that a spotless, sterilised, anti-bacterial environment is best for children’s health. But the truth is, we’ve always been surrounded by these germs, and in fact, many of them are even good for us.
Exposure to dirt and the microbes and bacteria contained within dirt is an essential part of a child’s immune system development. Like many other parts of the body, the immune system needs to be exercised for proper development. Exposure to dirt helps to train it to respond properly to real threats to our health without overreacting to those that are not. Limiting a child’s exposure can have long term detrimental effects including increased risk of allergies, asthma, bowel disorders and generally weaker immune system and resistance to disease. (Science, Microbial Exposure During Early Life Has Persistent Effects on Natural Killer T Cell Function)
In fact, the World Health Organisation warns that our overuse of antibiotics threatens to make bacteria completely resistant to all antibiotic treatments, returning us to a time when minor infections can no longer be treated, and pose serious risk. If such a thing comes to pass, it will be even more important that we’ve developed strong immune systems that are capable of fighting off infection by making sure children are exposed to dirt in the early years.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for us to encounter students as young as 5 years old who are “afraid” of getting dirty – some are afraid of the consequences of getting their clothes dirty, but some are afraid of the dirt itself. They have already learned that dirty things are bad.
We encourage interaction with dirt as part of healthy development, getting students to plant seeds, touch the grass and the soil beneath, and to even lay down on it, something that is at first met with disbelief, but followed by smiles and laughter – which brings us to the next important benefit that the outdoors has to resilience:
Outdoor Interaction Breeds Creativity and Appropriate Risk Taking
The outdoors, with it’s many and various challenges is an important part of developing student’s physical and mental creativity, adaptability and resilience. This includes learning to adapt to, and even enjoy, working in the heat, negotiating terrain that isn’t flat, avoiding gutters.
We are all concerned for children’s and students safety, and again it’s natural that we may want to eliminate risk – but in doing so, we can eliminate opportunities for children to negotiate risk, a skill they must develop if they’re to thrive against the physical, relational and emotional challenges they will face in life.
When running programmes, I now find myself actively seeking out challenging terrain – terrain with small hills that children have to get on all fours to climb, terrain with bushes that we have to walk around, terrain that requires us to exercise our physical co-ordination skills and our problem solving skills. If there is a gutter between us and the grass, we will take a little extra time to let the children cross it slowly one by one, building up their ability to confidently cross obstacles, rather than giving them the message that they are not to be trusted with such obstacles by finding routes around them.
Of course, there is a difference between challenging, and outright dangerous, while we might step over a gutter on a leisurely walk to our destination, we would not place a running race such that the gutter was in the path of the children running.
This again, is a key part of development of character. This engagement with the unpredictable teaches students the early skills of problem solving, and builds the foundation of resilience for the physical and emotional challenges they will inevitably face later in life, and it is something our facilitators themselves model as they go to different schools and negotiate the unique terrain to balance safety and meaningful engagement.
In our increasingly urbanised environment and highly scheduled time, student’s ability to engage with the outdoors and practice this character development is increasingly limited and so we value the hours that we are able to spend outside exposing students to such environments.
Increasingly, educators world wide are discovering the importance of exposing children to the outdoors to develop well rounded individuals that are able to cope well with stress and hardship when they encounter it later in life. A study in the Australian Journal of Early Childhood even raises concerns that when placed in the context of a child’s development, the lack of exposure to outdoor play poses a greater risk in compromised childhood development than the risk to safety posed by outdoor play (AJEC Vol. 33 No. 2 June 2008, Outdoor play Does avoiding the risks reduce the benefits?, p33).
Safety of students is of course our first priority, but we believe in balancing that with creating a learning environment that enables students to develop adaptability, resilience and meet the challenges of a dynamic, living classroom that the outdoors provides.
This approach has been developed based on our team’s experience (over 30 years combined experience), and backed with scientific research that we continue to compile and apply in our teaching.
This post only barely skims the surface of the many benefits of interaction with nature and exposure to the outdoors, benefits that include academic, emotional well-being and more. All of which form part of our vision for nurturing children and a society that is Gracious, Green, Giving, Grounded and Grateful.
I’d encourage you to read them in our 5G Science section on green, and share with us: What are the benefits you see when children get to play in the outdoors?