This was originally written for Gulf News “The Views”
(Image by Gulf News)
The small park near my house is filled with children, laughing, playing and running around. It is a beautiful sight — there’s a game of hide-and-seek going on in the play area, children are taking turns on the push swing and some others are finding their way up the challenging climbing frames. Adults supervise and encourage their young ones and as I observe them, I see a small child run to his mother to show a freshly acquired bruise. The mother offers a little kiss and some sympathy and the child runs away once more with the wind rushing through his hair. A steady breeze is blowing and the sky is filled with clouds. The weather is pleasant and the playground is bustling with activity. But as the sweltering summer months approach, one wonders if the children will still get as much of a chance to play outdoors. Research suggests that children in the UAE do not get adequate outdoor play time.
A first-of-its-kind research in the UAE, the Fun City Children’s Play Index (carried out by Landmark Leisure) is based on a survey conducted between July and September 2012. The data was collected from 400 mothers from different nationalities with children in the age group of 2-12 years residing in different emirates of the UAE. It was determined that on an average week day, children in the UAE spend less than an hour engaging in outdoor activity. This time increases to 1.5 hours during the weekend. Close to a quarter (26 per cent) of the children in the UAE spend an average of three hours a day on an activity involving interaction with technology: TV, video games, internet games. One in five (20 per cent) children spends more than four hours on an average watching TV each day.
Along with the conventional toys, every child has at least one Xbox, PS3 or some hand-held video game in their toy box, thus increasing the need to spend more time indoors. The study also shows 58 per cent of children spend their time playing indoor games as compared to 29 per cent who spend their play time outdoors, while 12 per cent also engage in learning or playing an outdoor sport.
Child development experts believe that for the desired physical development, a child must engage in outdoor play for at least one hour a day. Furthermore, experts suggest that the outdoors are the ideal place for children to be themselves, to explore, to experiment, to move and make the most of the opportunities offered in a less-restricted manner. Chances for developing social skills with peers are also ample, as is space, for running around, cycling, roller-blading and for simply breathing in fresh air.
Dr Stuart Brown, founder and president of the National Institute for Play in the US and the author of Play, How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul”, writes that there is a direct connection between play deficiencies and some frightening public health and social trends: Tragic statistics for obesity, (a growing problem in the UAE), 4.5 million children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), an increase in childhood depression and classroom behavioural problems involving violence and an inability to interact well with peers. Physical activity is known to lessen the symptoms of mild attention deficit disorder and is associated with much lower incidences of childhood obesity. Active kids are also more facile intellectually and perform better academically in the long term.
Dr Sandra Willis, co-owner and director of Inspire Children’s Nursery in Dubai believes that weather conditions in the UAE are not the main reason behind the lower index of outdoor play and that the weather is not as harsh as it is made out to be. “We are lucky to have eight months of suitable weather, providing children ample opportunities of outdoor play,” she says. She does, however, feel that one of the main reasons why children do not get enough chances to play outdoors is lack of community parks and spaces. Besides, she feels that an expat community is forever fluid and social relationships amongst children can sometimes suffer because of that. As parents and educators, we need to foster and encourage outdoor play, she says.
Asma Maladwala, co-owner and founder at the same nursery, believes that the best way to help children get more time outdoors is for the parents to join them, encourage them and play with them. “Go to the beach with your children, splash around and make a sand castle,” she says. Maladwala also speaks about how a child and parent playing together can bond in a beautiful way. She explains: “A child playing outside may not necessarily convey his or her fears and feelings, yet the parents can understand their child so much better by just playing with them.”
She certainly has a point. For, with a place that offers so much sunshine, we are definitely in a better position to help our children explore the outdoors, rather than, say, someone living in a place where it is bitterly cold, dark and gloomy 24 hours a day!