Today, dear reader, has been declared World Health Day. The World Health Organisation is asking us to be “part of a global movement to make cities healthier”.

Meanwhile, the inaugural international Healthy Parks Healthy People Congress kicks off in Melbourne on Sunday. So Croakey is hoping to talk quite a bit about the ways and means of promoting healthy environments in coming days.

To start the conversation, here is one of the Congress presenters, Cathy Kiss, President of the Playgrounds and Recreation Association of Victoria (PRAV), who is worried that the national schools building program may be reducing children’s opportunity for active play. She writes:

“There is growing evidence that children are spending less time enjoying outdoor play than at any point in our modern history.

Is this one of the outcomes of our fascination with building new facilities?  The nationwide spending program in schools is taking over already limited school playgrounds with portables and new buildings.  The playground is expendable, rather than valued as the place for play time outdoors at school, where in fact children learn through play.

We have designed our cities to focus on cars, so children can no longer play in the street with other children in their neighbourhood.

Compared to 30 years ago, many parents drive their children to school instead of letting them walk, where they would learn about their neighbourhood and be fitter.

Parents now won’t even let their children roam past the front gate.  And with ever smaller backyards, children are playing inside, where they might get a top score at tennis on a computer game, but in reality couldn’t hit the ball over a net.

Play is an essential ingredient in healthy childhood development.  Children play in all sorts of ways, not just on equipment.  Children learn through play.

Unstructured outdoor play is so important.  Richard Louv, author of the outstanding book “Last Child in the Woods:  Saving our children from nature deficit disorder”, talks about how we – and therefore our children – are becoming further removed from nature.  And presents layers of research reinforcing the role access to nature has in healthy childhood development.

I find that when I ask people to remember their favorite memory of play as a child, it is always nature based.  So why are children missing out now?  Is it because parents now need to make time for children to access nature?  Or because nature is no longer close at hand?  That in the past children could roam further, there were more undeveloped blocks and creek lines (instead of freeways), where children could explore and imagine and play with others.

The natural environment is constantly changing.  There are complex mixtures of sound, light, smell, colour and temperature to experience.  Watching wind blow in the leaves, listening to bird calls, digging in the dirt or sand, discovering frogs and tadpoles, seeing the difference between wet and dry.  These are all essential experiences for children.

Because of the changes in the urban areas, parks are left to provide this nature based experience.  In our local parks we build “playgrounds”, when the whole park needs to be the place to play.   We can provide these experiences in local parks, if we allow children the freedom to play.  And give play the priority that it should have.”

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