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Kelsie Prabawa-Sear: Finding freedom brings joy

Kelsie Prabawa-SearThe West Australian
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Every week, I see different research articles highlighting the benefits of nature and unstructured play for children.
Camera IconEvery week, I see different research articles highlighting the benefits of nature and unstructured play for children. Credit: ddimitrova/Pixabay

Every week, I see different research articles highlighting the benefits of nature and unstructured play for children.

At times I wonder if there is indeed a growing understanding in our community, or if the algorithms are messing with my perception. In reality (the offline world), there is a huge gap between what the research tells us about child development and well-being and what we are doing as a society.

I recently read an article in the Journal of Pediatrics that outlined the causal relationship between a lack of independent play and declining mental health in children and youth. There isn’t a much more esteemed academic publication for children’s health than the Journal of Pediatrics and it wasn’t a suggested link or observed correlation, it was an identified cause.

The authors noted that lack of independent play is not the sole cause but possibly a significant cause of kids’ declining mental health. They suggest that our current societal concern for children’s immediate safety has overwhelmed our historical understanding that children need increasing amounts of independent activity as they grow to develop the character traits they need for good mental health.

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Put simply, poor mental health is a much bigger risk to our children than letting them ride their bikes around the neighbourhood or play at the park without a parent supervising. As a society, we need to balance our concern for safety with the needs of our kids for independent, unsupervised, moderately risky activity. To really help our kids, we must be willing to do this within our education and care systems and in our kids’ free time.

Children need time to play where adults are not involved, not directing them, and not supervising, where the kids decide what they do and how they do it. The importance of this autonomy is beautifully conveyed in a study of childhood play from Switzerland in the early 1990s. The study found that children who were allowed to play freely in the neighbourhood, on average, spent twice as much time outdoors, were much more active while outdoors, had more than twice as many friends, and had better motor and social skills than those denied such play.

Interestingly, children who were regularly taken to the park by their parents did not achieve the same positive results due to leaving the park before they wanted to (children will stay longer if given the chance), their friends not being there to take part in collaborative play, having their play monitored (so they played in less challenging and risky ways), and lack of diverse play opportunities that neighbourhood play allowed (like bringing tools and equipment from home for loose parts play).

We find ourselves in a situation where most West Australian kids are growing up with a lack of opportunity to play in neighbourhoods unsupervised and have absolutely no opportunity to play unsupervised at school, daycare, or after-school care.

According to the article in the Journal of Pediatrics, and according to my own children, childhood joy comes from freedom. So where, then, are our over-supervised, over-scheduled kids getting childhood joy from?

Free play and other forms of independent activity promote children’s happiness not only in the short term because independence makes children happy but also in the long term because independent activities promote the development of skills for coping effectively with life’s inevitable stressors.

To provide this for our children, we must change how we treat them within our education and care systems and broader society. We need to have systems that value the whole child and the child’s complete development — including independence, risk-taking, and ultimately robust mental health.

We also need to acknowledge that these important aspects can’t be taught in lessons but must be explored and tried by children independent of adults, both within and beyond our education and care systems.

Continuing to educate and care for children in ways that deny these opportunities will produce more of the same — a growing mental health and wellbeing crisis. Teaching children about mental health and providing helpline numbers cannot address the issue if the issue is the system.

While we advocate for significant changes to our care and education systems, we can make some small but significant changes to provide our kids with the space and freedom they need to enjoy childhood with the simple pleasures of unstructured, unsupervised play and better mental health.

If you’re looking for a place to start, I suggest asking the kids what they’d like to do. Ask them what makes them feel free and happy, and then set about making it happen in a way that promotes their autonomy and minimises your role.

The temptation to help will be strong, but do your best to resist. The kids might need a bit of help setting some ground rules (only the basics), but after a while, the adults and kids will both find their groove, and before you know it, all you’ll need to do is give the kids the time and space and the magic will happen.

Dr Kelsie Prabawa-Sear is the CEO of Nature Play WA.

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