Changing Outdoor Play from Broccoli to Ice-Cream

While limited empirical evidence exists, anecdotally most modern parents and professional who connect regularly with children recognise that the value and meaning of outdoor play for children is deteriorating or muscled out by screens.

Rates of participation in outdoor play are in steep decline (Planet Ark, 2012). Recent research on independent mobility shows that only 7.7% of Australian children play outdoors daily (Mullan, Maguire, 2012).

As children’s horizons shrink, there is an alarming trend pertaining to the modern child not wanting to or being interested in play outdoors.


This leads to 2 key and very important questions:

  • Is it that, in general, children don’t like playing outside anymore?


  • Is it about the fact that children are not able to build a strong internal value for outdoor play early on in their lives, based on positive experiences?


The modern child faces many barriers to outdoor play. Internally and externally, the issues surrounding something as innocent, simple, and fun as outdoor play have become complex, multiple and layered.

There is a strong need for thorough research focused on the rates of outdoor play, both structured and unstructured. This research should also focus on the perceptions, value and barriers for both structured and unstructured outdoor play accoridng to the child and the parent.

This research would clarify the issues as perceived by the parents and child, and focus efforts on how to build strong healthy internal and external interests and values for regular outdoor play, thus supporting the child to grow super healthy, active and strong. 

While we wait for the research to confirm what we already recognise as parents, family members, community members and professionals working regularly with children, the community conversation regarding the significant change to childhood rumbles along. Seemingly growing in concern, but also urgency and some confusion.


A Healthy Childhood Diet Requires Regular Nature Play

I would like to draw similarities between regular outdoor play and adequate nutrition. In considering children’s benefit awareness of and participation in outdoor play, I would like to pose a question:

How, as adults, have we developed the value, meaning and importance that we place on adequate nutrition for our children and ourselves?


Outdoor Play Is As Important As Adequate Nutrition

If you give children the choice between ice-cream and dinner which one will they choose? Similarly for the modern child, if you give them the choice between screen-use and outdoor play which would they choose?

Like ice-cream most modern technology has been carefully designed to hold the users attention, create overwhelmingly rewarding experiences, offer instant gratification and has been constructed to be overwhelmingly appealing and satisfy many needs/desires, all at once. However like ice-cream, the long term effects of over exposure are detrimental to our children’s short and long-term health and well-being.

Sticking with the food analogy, while broccoli is good for you, a child will need to be exposed regularly to build its value and meaning in the child’s life. Unfortunately the same now applies for unstructured outdoor play and playing in nature.

Drawing another synergy between ice-cream, technology and the decline of internal value and meaning for outdoor play in our children’s lives. While not intended when developing these very appealing computerised programs and devices, technology has become the competitor to outdoor play as has ice-cream to broccoli (some would say broccoli has never really had a chance). Children will go to great lengths to not eat broccoli but still consume large amounts of desert when offered. Ice-cream is an appealing quick fix offering immediate satisfaction and short-term benefits.

As most parents will know, to get your child to eat broccoli can be a mission that is deemed to fail. However we persist because we know the long-term effects are a child who maintains health now and values the future health and wellbeing benefits of adequate nutrition.


Screen Use Is A ‘Some-Times’ Play Option, But Nature Play Should Be Part Of Their Everyday Play Diet

The same applies for balancing our children’s screen use and outdoor play. By getting our children regularly outdoors to play, and to connect with nature, connect with other children and their community, the negative health effects of over screen use and sedentary lifestyles are eroded.

The current cultural change to childhood for the modern child immersed in screen-use, is that outdoor play used to be ice-cream, but now it is broccoli. However for any child exposed regularly to unstructured outdoor play this metaphor is transformed to something much more constructive.


Growing Decline Of A Strong Internal Value For Outdoor Play 

The declines in children developing internal value and meaning for outdoor play in their lives are due to the significant reductions in these areas:

  • Steep decline in self-directed unstructured outdoor play
  • Amount of regular and immediate access to outdoor play opportunities
  • Lack of exposure to natural environments
  • No immediate, self-directed access to local friends
  • Lack of unstructured outdoor play positive experiences that meet their needs
  • No degree of freedom children while playing outside
  • The capacity of technology to maintain children’s interest for long periods of time


Nature Play QLD Is A Proven Practical Tool Addressing This Growing And Alarming Indoor Childhood Trend

Nature Play QLD has been addressing this outdoor play deficiency through creating resources that inspire and encourage outdoor play, in attempts to build strong healthy and positive outdoor play files in Queensland children’s brains.

Since May 2014 over 200,000 Nature Play QLD passports have been ordered for Queensland children. That is just under 20% of all Queensland children aged 0-12 years old.

This figure impact relates to only one of our Nature Play QLD resources. Many of Nature Play QLD’s other resources are also inspiring and encouraging outdoor play, such as the Nature Play Lists, Licence to Play Outdoors and the recent addition of the GROW with Nature Play APP.

We have been surveying our community, assessing the capacity of the Nature Play QLD resources to inspire and activate children to play outdoors more, create change, and increase children’s and grown-up's awareness of the benefits for outdoor play.

The results to this question is a resounding YES.

Nature Play QLD resources are increasing the amount of time children spend in outdoor play, and are also increasing the children’s awareness of the benefits of outdoor play just as they understand the benefits of adequate nutrition.



Killian Mullan, Brigit Maguire, 2012. How engaged are children in organised sport and other physical activity during their late primary school years? Australian Institute of Family Studies

Planet Ark, 2011, Climbing Trees: Getting Aussie Kids Back Outdoors

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