Outdoor activities and children under three years of age – the great unknown

By Uwe Lersch, Kompan GmbH

Outdoor activities and children under three years of age – the great unknown

Young children are now increasingly being provided with care during the day at nursery schools and crèches and are spending more time away from their homes. Their future development is determined by the exercise they get. This means that outdoor activity spaces in crèches, daycare centres and kindergartens need to be appropriately designed.

As a result of the worldwide observation and evaluation of changes to the conditions that influence the way children develop, particularly in industrialised countries, alarming reports have been appearing over the past few years with regard to all aspects of their motor abilities, level of health and their development of cognitive and social skills.

It has already reached the point where it will no longer be possible to prevent the need for increased economic outlay because of this. Alone the costs of dealing with the avoidable disorders caused by insufficient exercise and physical development in childhood will place our health insurance system under massive strain over the coming 20 years.

To be seen on the Designed to Move website (www.designedtomove.org) is an unsettling video entitled ''5 Extra Years". It would seem that the trend towards increasing life expectancy in developed countries is being reversed and today's children are actually likely to die five years earlier than their parents.

It is now also becoming apparent that there is a higher incidence of serious illnesses such as osteoporosis, age-related diabetes and other metabolic disorders (including muscular and joint dysfunction) in those born in 1995 and later and that this is demonstrably attributable to a lack of physical play and exercise activities and to poor nutrition during the corresponding infancy, preschool and school age phases (see, for example, the article "Sitzender Lebensstil" [Sedentary lifestyle] at www.pebonline.de/sitzender_lebensstil.html).

But that's not all. Motor deficits, a susceptibility to dizziness and a higher body mass index are not only associated with impaired concentration and lower resilience to stress but also contribute towards the development of the disease of civilisation that has reached epidemic proportions ‒ depression.


And it is the parents of today who are the main culprits responsible for these worrying developments.


Because of the massively growing pressures exerted within our performance-orientated society, the all-important time that parents have to devote themselves to their children is being eroded. Moreover, exposure to information overload and media reports mean that the resultant subconscious anxieties implanted in parents lead to their being unable to recognise the need to allow their children to develop 'normally' and thus learn to assess danger and risk, experience pain, explore ways of solving problems, develop antibodies and so on.

In fact, more and more children who exhibit what is essentially a natural urge to be physically active are being diagnosed as 'hyperactive' or as having 'attention deficit disorder'. Studies have shown that some of the medications they are prescribed because of this accumulate over the long term in the body, further exacerbating their chances of suffering panic attacks and depression in later life.

There is little incentive to open parents' eyes to what is happening. Physicians and paediatricians are happy that their appointments books are full, the pharmaceutical industry laughs all the way to the bank, politicians are unwilling to upset their potential voters while parent-orientated publications actually admit that they are reluctant to annoy their readership.

At the same time, little else is being done outside the direct sphere of influence of parents.

None of the syllabuses prepared by the various German states for the subjects social education and childcare explicitly include training in the aspect of 'psychomotor development and health promotion through self-determined outdoor play'. The author has contacted educational institutes to ask about this; all replied that in their view this is 'unnecessary'.

And yet the majority of those who are actively involved in professional childcare are desperately searching for credible guidance on what is the best approach to take. No efforts whatsoever have been made to comply with this need for information, particularly when it comes to the supervision of very young children.

Instead, open spaces that could provide suitable play areas are being adapted to realise the concepts in the minds of adults ‒ not children ‒ while safety aspects predominate. The nest swing, a piece of play equipment originally developed as a therapeutic aid for use in the care of disabled persons, seems to have developed a life of its own and is now ridiculously omnipresent. In the form of its latest mutation as a 'toddler nest swing', it habituates small children to what is the fundamental problem of our digital era: our sedentary lifestyle.

So how can we get closer to promoting the ideal forms of play and exercise in very young children out of doors?

In order to be able to design and furnish an outdoor play area appropriately, it is necessary to be aware of the level of development of the average small child, here specifically children in the age range 10 months to two years of age (designated in Germany, rather confusingly, the 'U3' group).

Extending the concept of a 'sensitive period of life' during which both positive and negative experiences leave their mark on the subconscious and thus determine an individual's subsequent lifestyle (previously known as the 'imprinting phase'), we in the specialised play equipment development sector now talk of a 'critical period' that extends until a child reaches the age of two years.

In addition to acquiring the recognised abilities (sensorimotor skills, speech development, social interaction through speech etc.), children must also be exposed while forming their consciousness to positive experiences with regard to autonomous play and exercise; this will lead them to conceive of physical activity as something normal and will also instil in them a permanent desire for exercise over their whole lifetime.

Hence, when planning outdoor play areas for use during this 'critical' phase of life both in the public(!) and private childcare spheres, it is advisable to employ a defined concept for the development of physical skills that provides for a balanced combination of static and dynamic options that allow small children to discover the enjoyment associated with physical activity out of doors (www.kompan.de/spielinstitut).

Those who make claims for complex indoor facilities should bear in mind that sunlight, wind, the auditory impressions associated with being outdoors, changes in temperature and weather and organic materials sustainably bolster play activities over the long term, effects that cannot be reproduced by indoor constructions, irrespective of how elaborate these may be.

As soon as a new crèche or extension is completed that ‒ in Germany at least ‒ tends to look more like the modernist centre of a furniture manufacturer and which has been constructed so as to also consume the resources available for the layout of the external areas, the funding organisation witnesses something odd with regard to the behaviour of the children there; all age groups ‒ from age 10 months to six years ‒ suddenly seem to be playing together, so that the provision of an (actually inappropriate) piece of play equipment that can be used by children both under and over the age of three years seems justified from their point of view.

Or the inevitable nest swing, originally a therapeutic play device for the handicapped, is used every morning to 'rock' 40 U3 group children who have been hoisted in groups in and out of the swing, much to the detriment of the spinal columns of the child carers, while in the afternoons it is used by the preschool age children, five lying and two standing, to swing through 180° arcs.

In conclusion, when it comes to practical matters, parents, carers, planners and fund providers are all very much in need of appropriate advice. The other problem is that those in authority not only have insufficient space and money available but also need to verify the skills of those working in this sector at all levels.

'Lack of finances' is simply not reason enough to skimp when we are talking about the welfare of our coming generations. For the various facilities and sponsors, Kompan can develop complex outdoor play concepts for children under three years of age in the form of static and dynamic equipment combinations and will provide expert advice, relevant training and workshops while also ensuring that parents are involved in the process.



Image: Kompan

<< back