The learning and development of Australian kids is under threat because they're not playing outdoors, engaging in constructive, creative play.
A nationwide Newspoll survey revealed that the average kid is spending at most, just 10 percent of their free time playing outdoors at home. Alarmingly one in 20 parents (5%) admits when their kids are at home they NEVER play outdoors. Instead the majority of Australian kids are spending far more time indoors, watching television, playing computer games or playing with toys.
Years of research shows that constructive play is an essential part of fostering inquisitive and strong minds. Playing outdoors is therefore key to normal development and lack of exposure to this kind of experience may put some children at a disadvantage.
Getting messy is how they learn, explore and express their creativity. It also helps them to stay healthy by encouraging them to exercise and by bolstering their immune system. Importantly it is through play that children learn to explore
The Newspoll study has revealed that the 'clean kid' syndrome is widespread. Two in five kids (40%) are permitted by their parents to get dirty no more than two or three times per week.
And, according to the research it's mainly because their parents are concerned about their child's safety, but also because they're worried about cleaning up any mess their kids make.
Almost all those parents polled (96%) said they wanted their kids to excel at school, in sport and socially, yet they're reluctant to let them kids get their hands dirty. One in four (23%) youngsters never get the chance to get messed up indoors either by cooking or doing craft activities.
It is clear also that Australian parents underestimate the benefits of free, unrestricted play for children as most would prefer their children to do homework than play outside.
So, just how restrictive has outdoor play become for Australia's youngest generation? Six in ten (62%) parents claim that as kids they spent more time playing outdoors getting dirty than their own children do now, including three in ten who spent more than twice as much time outdoors getting dirty as their children.
There is a clear need to rethink how children spend their free time and how their lives are organised. Australian parents are a well-intentioned, anxious, misinformed group. We all care greatly about our children's futures however in an effort to give them the best possible start in life we are run the danger of robbing of them of childhood that we are trying to protect.
For too long Australian parents have been fed the message that they need to start their children on the educational track from an early age. So kids from as young as two are routinely shunted around from one organised activity to another in an effort to maximise their development.
Parents need to be encouraged to buck the 'clean kid' trend and be less anxious about their kids getting messy. But where to start?
Let's start by insisting kids turn off the TV or computer and get outside more often. In a back to the future move let's introduce some old-fashioned activities such as finger painting, making mudpies, leaf stencilling and generally mucking all in the name of good clean fun.
Importantly, parents need to value the simple interactions that they have with children on a daily basis such as cleaning up a spill together or making a bed. From my experience parents underestimate the positive impact that these ordinary interactions have on children.
And it would be good for the well-being of both parents and kids if they spent some time getting down and dirty together. My hunch is that most parents do this anyway but they just don't value these messy experiences enough.
Michael Grose is Australia's leading parenting educator. He is the author of six books and gives over 100 presentations a year and appears regularly on television, radio and in print.
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