WITH OBESITY AND MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES RISING AMONG AUSSIE KIDS, THE KEY TO TURNING THINGS AROUND COULD LIE IN GETTING THEM TO PLAY OUTDOORS, THE OLD FASHIONED WAY. BUT HOW DO YOU PRY THEM AWAY FROM THE SCREENS THEY’RE SO RELIANT ON?
APLAY expert wants us to redefine the term “I’m bored” in a bid to stem the mental health and obesity epidemic gripping Aussie kids. Meanwhile, a child psychologist is urging parents to take charge of children’s digital devices. Statistics from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development make for grim reading. Right now, in OECD countries including Australia, more than one in two adults and nearly one in six children are overweight or obese.
And the number of overweight children in Australia is worse than the OECD average. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures for 2014—2015, 25 per cent of Aussie kids aged between two and 17 were overweight or obese.
Nature Play chief executive officer Griffin Longley said outside action was crucial to lowering stress levels in children.
“Australian children are in the grips of a mental health epidemic and obesity epidemic,” he said.
“One of the key things being outside does is lower stress levels.
“The stress hormone cortisol falls through the floor as soon as we’re outside.”
Nature Play was created by the West Australian government in 2010. It then became an independent organisation that has spread to Queensland, South Australia and the ACT.
The organisation aims to make outdoor play a normal part of childhood again.
Mr Longley, who has been with the organisation since 2010, also invited parents to re-imagine what the words “I’m bored” meant. “It sends us into a panic,” he said. “And for the first time in human history we have a way of plugging that moment ... we can plug it with an iPad or iPhone.
“What the kids are really saying is ‘I’m about to do something interesting’. “Boredom is the precondition to creativity.” He said many of us had confused entertainment with play.
“Entertainment is pre-formulated and passive and we can’t control the outcomes of it,” he said.
“Digital entertainment deserves to be called play in the same way as colouring in deserves to be called art.
“Kids need time to make stuff up and make stuffups. It breeds creativity and resilience.”
Mr Longley said children may need help redefining the difference between play and entertainment.
Parents could encourage them to go outside and give them props — something as simple as cardboard and tape — to kickstart their imaginations.
Child psychologist Andrew Greenfield, who has been working with toddlers, children and adolescents for more than 20 years, said judging a good amount of screen time for kids depended on a few factors.
First was what they were doing on the device, second was who they were doing it with, and the third factor was the amount of time spent on devices.
For example, playing with siblings while using an app on a smartphone or tablet was better than spending time on the device alone.
“Time-wise it also depends on the age of the child,” Dr Greenfield said.
He said in many households, screen time was an expectation rather than a reward for chores done or other goals achieved. Most importantly, it was important to lay down boundaries when it came to device usage.
When and how much screen time depended on the household.
“At the end of the day, the parents have to be in control,” Dr Greenfield said.
“You’re the parent, you are the one paying for the data or device.
“You have ultimate say, regardless of the age of the child.”
Children also needed to know there were consequences for breaking the rules.
Punishment might include stopping or limiting data, disabling the wireless functionality on the device or restricting the use of apps.
“The technology (for punishment) can be quite clever, but it’s not about all or nothing,” Dr Greenfield said.
“To me the main things are those limits, and you have clear rules so you don’t have an argument every single time.
“It’s also about being clear on what happens when a child breaks those rules.”
The psychologist said parents could discuss rules with older children, but ultimately it was up to the adult to set and enforce the boundaries.
Mr Longley also advocated balancing screen time with play.
“The number one thing is balance,” Mr Longley said. “The amount of time the kids spend on screens needs to be balanced with being outside and being active. It’s not about abstinence.”