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Celia Tennant on the benefits of outdoor play for Holyrood Magazine

Scotland is beautiful.

We have mountains and rolling hills, forests, meadows, sandy beaches and rocky bays. Our cities, towns and villages are rich with urban beauty too. In fact, with their abundance of parks and gardens, they are the greenest in the UK. It is a beautiful place to call home and should be a brilliant place to grow up.

But for many children like Kirsty, the Holyrood baby, now aged three, their experience of Scotland’s greenspace is all too limited. When it could and should be daily, for every single child.

Being outdoors is much more than an aesthetic joy. There are countless benefits that come from playing and learning outside, both for the individual and the wider world. Experiences of being outside – whether in rural or urban greenspace – will improve Kirsty’s physical and mental health, her ability and willingness to learn, and her social and emotional development.

It will spark her curiosity and equip her with the problem-solving skills she needs to become a scientist or engineer. It will help her think creatively and develop her imagination which she can use to be an artist, a musician, a chef or anything else she wants to be when she grows up.

Climbing trees and bounding down hills, she will learn to assess risk and danger and test her capabilities. It will help her to grow strong and learn physical skills that will stay with her for life. She could be a world class athlete or an avid amateur hill walker because of things she learnt playing outside when she was wee.

Playing outside will help her make friends and learn the social skills she will need throughout her life. It will give her confidence and self-esteem to rise to the challenges she will face in life, as well as the resilience to bounce back from disappointment and failure. All this while having fun, too.

These are things we all want for every child. They are things we all want for our future; opportunities for everyone in a healthy, happy society. But Kirsty and her generation’s opportunity to play outside is also vital if we want to have a future at all.

Playing and learning outdoors will cultivate in her an understanding and enjoyment of the natural world. As we learn more and more about the devastating effect climate change will have on our planet, it is imperative that we foster in each other the desire and the will to protect the environment. This must begin in childhood.

As part of Scotland’s Outdoor Play and Learning Coalition, we are working alongside nearly 90 organisations and individuals, from charities and councils to academics and healthcare professionals, to make sure that children like Kirsty have regular access to high-quality outdoor spaces, regardless of where they live or their family circumstances. There are many ways to do this.

Kirsty is now at nursery-going age and Scottish Government’s commitment to expanding free childcare hours for every child is an opportunity to make early years education an outdoors activity across the country by utilising under-used outdoor spaces.

Thinking about, caring for, and exploring the natural world can be embedded in everyday life at school, in the community and at home simply by making and taking the time to go outside and play. This shared activity creates a common purpose in all of us – to understand the world that nourishes us, and to nourish it in return.

The benefits of embracing outdoor play are vast, and the cost of not doing it is even greater. To deny our children a meaningful connection to the environment is to condemn them to ill-health, isolation, and impaired social and cognitive development. It is to deny them a chance to be part of a better future. It is also to deny our children the chance to enjoy the diversity of our beautiful world before it is too late.

We cannot let that be Kirsty’s future.

This piece originally featured in Holyrood magazine online on 23 May

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