Why It’s Good For Kids To Play Dirty

Why It’s Good For Kids To Play Dirty

And no, I’m not referring to name calling and hair pulling! I’m talking about playing outdoors, climbing trees, getting their hands dirty making mud pies and all those old fashioned fresh air games that require physical activity, and develop confidence, imagination and creativity…

You know, like how we parents used to play? Play time for kids has changed so dramatically for the current generation that research commissioned by Omo – as a part of its Dirt is Good campaign – highlights the worrying lack of ‘real play’ on the family agenda – and the important psychological and emotional benefits that real play brings.

Sadly, the research shows that Australian children are growing up in a world where ‘real play’ time – involving activities like climbing a tree, playing imaginary games and making mud pies – is in severe decline. And almost half of children aged five to 12 spend just over one hour of ‘real play’ per day. Alarmingly, this is one third less time than their parents spent at that age, a drop of 36% in a single generation.

Dr. Suzy Green is championing a mission to bring back the magic of real play to Aussie children. “As parents, we need to work together to put real play firmly back on the family agenda, as without it, there will be a significant impact on their social and emotional development,” she explains.

Academic research proves that free, outdoor, unstructured play is crucial for normal emotional, social and psychological development in children as it enables children to develop critical life skills such as independence, confidence and resilience.

But with 33% of parents admitting to ‘cotton wooling’ their child for fear they might hurt themselves, the chances of parents playing traditional games with their kids, such as climbing a tree, getting muddy or building a cubby house, seem slim. Unless you understand all the benefits.

Here, Dr. Green explains the numerous developmental benefits of outdoor play for children…

Q. How does ‘risky’ outdoor play help children develop?

“Challenge and risk in outdoor play allows kids to test their physical, intellectual and social development,” explains Dr. Green. “Playing in the great outdoors is also a perfect setting for children to develop resiliency. Types of ‘risky play’ might include activities where kids have to navigate height, speed, outdoor elements like tree climbing, rough and tumble play. The Dirt is Good report alarmingly revealed that one in three Australian kids have never climbed a tree, but as parents we need to work together to put the traditional real play activities back on the agenda. Through negotiating these challenges involved in real play they learn to cooperate, develop confidence and negotiate with others.

Q. What are the consequences of ‘cotton wooling’ our children?

“The report revealed that one in three parents admit to cotton wooling their child for fear of them getting hurt or dirty while enjoying outdoor, real play activities,” explains Dr. Green. “Yet significant amounts of research has identified that a lack of opportunity for children to take risks may result in them growing up over-cautious in everyday situations, and be unable to judge potentially dangerous situations. The importance of risk taking to children’s neurological, emotional and social development has been widely discussed (Gladwin & Collins, 2008).”

Why It's Good For Kids To Play Dirty: Dr. Suzy Green explains the emotional, physical and developmental benefits of unstructured outdoor ply for children. Image: GM Photographics

Let’s have a flour fight! Image: GM Photographics

Q. How can unstructured outdoor play help children’s emotional development?

“Emotions can be expressed and managed through playing,” explains Dr. Green. “Fantasy or imaginative play, in particular, has been identified as the most therapeutic, allowing children to uncover and address painful feelings and conflicts with others. Imaginary play using a ‘treasure chest’ of outfits and props is one of the simple ideas I’ve put together with Omo on the website to inspire parents with real play activities to enjoy.”

Q. What about children’s social development?

“Children who are able to play freely with their peers develop skills for seeing things through another person’s point-of-view, for cooperating, helping, sharing, and solving problems (Open University 2011),” explains Dr. Green. “Research also tell us that children who have opportunities to play have stronger friendships and are more joyful, secure and co-operative.”

Q. What are some of the physical developmental benefits of outdoor play for children?

“Several studies have shown that playing is good for developing motor functioning,” says Dr. Green. “Furthermore, research has shown that parents who engage in physical activity and free play with their children have active children.”

Q. How does play help develop children’s independence, confidence and resilience?

“Unstructured outdoor play helps build independence, confidence and resilience in a number of ways, yet worryingly, the Omo Dirt is Good findings has shown that children are spending less time engaging in real play,” warns Dr. Green. “But there’s a real need to encourage more real play.  There is a significant amount of research to show that creativity is required and developed in play, the use of imagination and finding one’s own solutions to problems, both real and imagined, all help children to develop independence, confidence and resilience. They can acquire an ‘open disposition to the unexpected.’ (Lester & Russell, 2008).”

Why It's Important For Children To Play Dirty Dr Suzy GreenABOUT: Dr. Suzy Green has developed some simple strategies to incorporate outdoor activities into everyday life with Omo, so parents can enjoy the beautiful messiness of real play with their kids. Visit Omo for details. 

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