How children learn outdoors
I'm not a fan of sweeping generalisations but it's probably true to say that children are not playing outside as much as they used to. For some, this isn't a problem at all. After all, its much easier to keep them safe inside and there are many wholesome and fun indoor activities such as board games, arts and crafts and making dens. Those that allow or even encourage computer games, apps and social media, can be comforted in the knowledge that many studies (eg. http://www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/7-1-article-video-games.pdf) claim they have long-lasting positive effects on a child's mental processes - such as perception, focus, memory, and decision-making.
And yet, the more of these articles I read, the more I worry that these well educated and well researched psychologists, have misunderstood some crucial aspects. One of the arguments in favour of video gaming suggests that children have "reduced impulsiveness" and learn how to hold back when stimuli does not require a response. And yet, in the video game, if the avatar is hurt or dies, the child learns that it can just start again. If it shoots another character, no one actually gets hurt and if there are a hundred different pop ups, adverts or messages, all one needs to do is turn it off. How does all that learning play out in the real world? Surely a child needs to learn what its physical boundaries are so that they don't get seriously hurt or die and they can't just eliminate "opponents" when faced with real life disagreements or competition. In the real world, we must all learn to handle the overload of stimuli to our senses, and it is impossible to "turn it off" when it becomes too much to bear and so we must learn to cope with it.
The National Curriculum states "It (schools) should provide opportunities for pupils to become physically confident in a way which supports their health and fitness. Opportunities to compete in sport and other activities build character and help embed values such as fairness and respect". I like the phrase "physically confident" because it doesn't place the emphasis on being the strongest or fastest in sport. Instead it suggests an affinity between mind and body, as though a child who understands their physical capabilities finds an alternate source of self-confidence. Being physically confident suggests a self-awareness of ones own physical boundaries such as knowing how far one can jump, or how high up a tree one can get without getting stuck.
Socially, playing outdoors, whether it is using the imagination in make believe games or in a structured game led my an adult, is very different to playing web characters, living on a social media platform or even other online participants. Playing with others without being able to escape or eliminate them as in a computer game, forces one to confront emotions and impulses and find ways of expressing them, letting others help or noticing those feelings in others.
Being outdoors and at the mercy of nature, encourages a child to understand our ecosystem and learn its place within it. It offers them the chance to connect with the natural world and see first hand examples of life and growth. Many children (one in four apparently), learn best through movement which is much easier to do outside. If it is too hot or too cold, a child learns to listen to their bodily needs and dress accordingly and so avoid getting ill. I could go on!
Throughout childhood, we find out what we are capable of and discover our boundaries, both mentally and physically. These discoveries build the foundations of who we become as adults. I would much rather be an adult that has learnt from observing nature and feeling in tune with it. I don't remember online chats or specific Tetris games but I do remember the exact feeling when I bounced too high on a trampoline and realised I was going to land on the grass. I also remember feeling scared in the woods and learning how to navigate out of them. I remember getting soaked during a freak rainstorm in Summer but feeling warm anyway and how the atmosphere changed and we stopped playing and danced in the street - just for the sheer joy of it.
Every year I spend a week at Emerson College in Sussex where 9 - 14 year old children come on a camping holiday, and learn a lot. They are stripped of all technology and start building friendships through the connection of shared experiences, whether they are challenging or fun. We play games, build fires, go on walks and set them tasks. Every year I come away thinking how lucky they are to have this opportunity to be mentally and physically challenged in a safe environment and wonder how much of this nourishment they take back into their own "real" lives.