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Why Getting Outside Beats Screentime, Every Time - Here's How to Do It

No, this is not a lecture or shaming or saying that my children never, EVER watch tv. They do, probably more than they should. But the recent revelation from a survey run by CyberSafe Kids (2024) detailing that now, almost 25% of children aged 6 own a smartphone got me thinking a lot over the last few weeks. In todays age where we know so much, with answers and opinions and advice just a tap away, how are we moving so quickly in a way that is harmful to our children?

Occupational Therapists are full across the board, challenging behaviours in early years settings and beyond are off the charts, teachers and caregivers and parents are burnt out and exhausted and we are witnessing our children growing and developing in a world that is brand new, unchartered territory even for us.

The truth is, overuse of screens not only affects us mentally, but also physically, socially and emotionally. Experts have reported that children's balance, core strength and muscle development have weakened significantly as they spend less time exercising and playing outside and more time on tablets or screens. Children also have shorter attention spans as they can watch short, catchy videos on YouTube or Social Media and need constant stimulation when not on a screen in order to remain regulated. Emotional well-being is being compromised as children are being soothed by screens instead of human connection. Many well-meaning parents love the benefits that screens can provide for learning literacy and numeracy, but most learning that occurs on a screen is passive, rather than active, hands on learning.

Think back to your own childhood, and some of your favourite memories. Most likely they were outside, with family or friends, maybe skipping stones on the water, or climbing muck hills, paddling by the beach at rock pools or running away from the cows chasing you through a field, your lungs full with panic, fear and laughter and joy as you shared these special moments with those around you.

Mother Nature provides us with a bounty of gifts that are waiting to be explored, investigated and wondered about. In reality, the outdoors provides a playground and foundation on which to build all the skills your child needs to grow into a well rounded, emotionally sound, strong and capable adult.

Physical development? Check.

Focus and attention? Check.

Social skills? Check.

Coordination, balance, fine motor, healthy brain development? Check, check, checkity-check.

Playing outside offers rich experiences in an ever changing and developing landscape. No two days are ever the same in your garden or park. A daily dose of outdoor play provides better sleep, improved appetite, deepens learning and keeps brains active as our growing children learn to navigate space, new terrains, social structures, risk and new discoveries. As your child grows, curiosity ignites the brain and they learn to ask questions, hypothesise, research and develop new ideas. These basic skills are essential now more than ever in a world that requires and celebrates creative, independent, confident thinkers.

Instead of focusing on learning phonics, numbers and colours through a tablet with a stranger, we need to shift that focus to fostering a love and appreciation not only for the natural world around us, but also to nurturing children's innate curiosity and wonder and encouraging them to explore and discover things on their own. Through this process, not only are we honouring our children and recognising who they are and what interests them, but we are forming a deep and profound connection with them as their parents, something a screen can never replace.

So, have I convinced you yet?

I hear you. It's hard.

Screens are an easy solution.

The whining is triggering.

All their friends are on screens.

They just love (insert youtube personality here) so much.

I can't just take it away. I'll traumatize them.

I hear you. It's ok. I have some practical advice that you can start implementing today and get your kiddos on a healthier and happier path.

Here's what you can do to start putting outdoor time before screen time:

First off, I recommend a digital detox. Two weeks without screens. Yep. I said it.

Whatever you do though, don't take accountability for the screens being gone. Depending on the age of your child, the tablets and phones could be gone on holiday to Spain. Or broken and gone to be fixed. Or the wifi is gone. You are about to go into two weeks of no screen time, you need your kids on your side and you don't want to be seen as the bad guy or "the one who took them away".

There will be tantrums. There will be upset. There will be whining. You need to stay strong and not give in. If they go to a childminder or family member for care, they need to be on board too. It's not easy, but the benefits for your child in the long run will vastly outweigh the 5 minutes of peace you will get if you back down.

Next, you are going to need some ways to encourage your child to get outside. That likely means you are going to have to be on board and model how awesome it is to be outside. Depending on how reliant your child is on screens, you are going to have to get your playful pants on and really sell it. You need to be armed with some awesome ideas to take play outside and start to reap all the benefits that I have been harping on about. Luckily, I've prepared a quick go to list of FREE ways you can help get your child excited about getting outdoors.

If you can, try to enlist as many friends or neighbours with children to help you on this journey. By creating a collaborative approach, your child won't feel like they are missing out and they will be strengthening and building social skills and forming friendships. Any of these activities can be done independently, with your child, or in a group setting.

Here are 14 ways that you can encourage your child to get outside - one activity for each day!

  1. Start off by taking a walk together, just out in your garden or around the block. Don't be keen to point out things or turn it into a "learning experience". Just quietly walk and listen.

  2. Bring the toys outdoors. Dinosaurs love to climb on rocks and hide in grasses. You could build homes, race tracks, princess castles, anything you can play with inside, you can play with outside and likely have more fun!

  3. Teddy Bears Picnic. Grab some favourite stuffed animals and share a picnic outside together.

  4. Playdough. Set up a small table outside (charity shops often have coffee tables or you can use some crates and a board) and make playdough together. Get my playdough recipe here

  5. Weeding. Children love to weed. Grab a basket or box and invite them out to help you with jobs in the garden or communal area. The hands on connection with the earth and focus and attention required has a profound impact on mental health and overall wellbeing.

  6. Run down hills. Find a hill somewhere and practice running or rolling down.

  7. Find some tree branches and use them as paintbrushes. Water on a footpath works perfectly.

  8. Paint rocks to leave for others to find.

  9. Do some playful yoga poses outside.

  10. Splash in puddles.

  11. Climb a tree.

  12. Go on a scavenger hunt.

  13. Set up a mud kitchen-a bowl and a spoon works just fine.

  14. Wash the car/bike/scooter.

After the 14 days, you should see a major shift in your child's focus, attention, behaviour, energy levels and connection with each other. By involving more people in your social circle, whether thats neighbours, cousins, friends or classmates, your child can build new solid relationships that empower and challenge them, developing crucial skills.

Now that your child is building more connections, they will likely rely on you less for entertainment and depend more on themselves and their new friends, or even reconnect with each other as siblings. This will allow you to again take a backseat and become an observer of your child, watching them grow, rather than being in the battleground each day.

And for the days that you really just don't have the energy during your digital detox and feel like giving in and turning to a screen, try to enlist the help and support of a friend, neighbour or family member to help take a load off. Local teenagers can make fantastic babysitters and will often be more than happy to take your little one for an hour or two so you can have a break. The goal of this exercise is not to give you more to do in the long run. It is about providing your child with the knowledge and opportunity and confidence to be independent and happy within themselves.

When the two weeks are over, you can reintroduce screens but with strict limits, however that looks for your family. And if things get out of control again, you can always come back to another detox. Remember to try and build a community around you that you can turn to for support and that you in turn can also offer support to. And please feel free to reach out and let me know how it goes or if you need more advice and tips!

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