Ditch the screen for the green

Ditch the screen for the green

Many of these problems are the consequence of a sedentary lifestyle with kids today spending much of their time in a box, looking at another box.

Over the past 30 years the way we live has changed significantly, with most Australians now living in suburbs in larger houses with smaller backyards and the most transport being by private car.

Nearly 80% of children who live within 2km of school are driven both ways, and most exceed the recommended maximum of two hours’ recreational screen time per day.

Screens are ubiquitous: in the back seat of the car, the classroom, the lounge room, the back pocket and, dare I say it, in doctors’ waiting rooms.

I am frequently disappointed to see parents encouraging children as young as infants to look at their smart phone in order to distract them.

This despite clear guidelines from the Heart Foundation that children under the age of two should have no screen time at all because of its adverse impact on development.

Given how difficult it is to be active when looking at a screen, it is not too surprising that one in four Australian children are overweight or obese and that associated health problems are occurring in young people.

Nor is it difficult to see how one in three children are vitamin D deficient.

Of great concern is the prevalence of depression and anxiety in young people and the increase in behavioural issues including ADHD and sleep problems.

As GPs we are acutely aware that problems occurring in childhood tend to grow up into adulthood and that multiple conditions occur in concert and the effect is cumulative.

The good news is that part of the solution is to provide young people with the time and the space to be outside in nature by giving them opportunities for unstructured play, either with their peers or alone.

This kind of lifestyle change promotes physical activity and enhances coordination and balance when children are allowed to climb over natural, uneven surfaces or perhaps even into trees.

American researchers have found significant improvements in children with ADHD after a 20-minute guided walk in a green outdoor space, compared to the same amount of time spent in other settings.

And Australian research has shown that the richer the natural space in a playground, the more restored children’s attention is after coming inside after playtime.

This suggests nature time can be part of the overall management plan for children experiencing difficulty regulating their focus.

From a developmental perspective, time spent in nature provides a diversity of sounds, sights, smells and textures, and a variety of plants, animals and landscapes for children to engage with. This mental and sensory stimulation is important because it engages all the senses together.

The diversity and sometimes unpredictability of nature also encourages creative play, exploration and problem solving.

Unsupervised time spent in outdoor, nature-based activities provides children with opportunities for independent adventure, risk-taking and exploration.

This contributes to the development of a sense of self-sufficiency and confidence in young people, which in turn promotes resilience.

There are many more studies supporting the value of nature time for children, and it is time now for GPs to highlight this to parents.

We can also advocate for children to have greener school grounds, regular nature-based activities at school and improved urban design so they can readily play in a nearby natural place and safely walk or cycle to school.

This article by DEA Biodiversity sub-committee Convenor, Dimity Williams, was published in Medical Observer 26th August 2014 and appears under a Creative Commons licence.

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