It’s a wet and windy kind of day here in the north of England; not the sort of weather you would hope for at the end of June. As I check the forecast to see what time would be best to go for a walk in the fresh air, I am reminded of a conversation I had with colleagues last week. We were discussing our Froebel Trust research (see previous blog post for information). Our second report ‘Making Connections with Their World: Outdoor Provision for Under-Twos in Early childhood Settings in Kent’ is now complete and available through this link which takes you to the Froebel Trust website. One of our findings suggests that there is great diversity in outdoor provision in the county of Kent. As we discussed this, one colleague asked, ‘But why is it so important for babies and toddlers to be outside?’ Which got me thinking; we know all the commonsense arguments but what does the research literature suggest?
Common sense thinking leads us to believe that fresh air is good for children (and indeed adults). At the same time, we have concerns about the impact of air pollution on children’s health. Research tells us that babies are more at risk from the effects of air pollution, yet that it is not an issue confined to outdoors. Indoors can also have high levels of pollutants as we discussed in a previous post. Dr Lin Day who is the founder of Baby Sensory argues that ‘Fresh air contains high levels of negative ions that can have a positive impact on brain function, mood and well-being’ . She draws her evidence from various peer reviewed journal articles in the disciplines of biometeorology, biology, medicine and psychophysiology to highlight these particular health benefits.
Other health benefits come from being in natural light; exposing babies to natural light impacts positively on their sleep patterns, their vision and the development of healthy bones. For example, a study carried out by Harrison in 2004 found that ‘Babies who slept well at night were exposed to signiﬁcantly more light in the early afternoon period’. And it’s not just health that is impacted but a young child’s cognitive development benefits also.
The idea that being outside in nature is important for young children goes back to the time of Froebel who believed that ‘Life in and with nature, and with the clear, still objects of nature must be fostered at this time… as the chief point of reference of the whole child-life’(Froebel, 1826: 30). The outdoors presents so many ‘cognitive possibilities’ to the child as a young scientist exploring the environment with all their senses. It is an ‘open and constantly changing environment’ (Bento and Dias, 2017) regardless of whatever other resources are provided.
So yes there is research evidence to suggest that it is important for babies and toddlers to be outside. It impacts on them health wise, cognitively and their overall wellbeing. As we’ve argued before this is easier to achieve when you have an appropriate and safe outdoor area and unfortunately not everyone does. But what do you think? What have you noticed about your own young children, or children you work with/care for? What do they get out of being outdoors? As usual, we’d love to know your thoughts!