How to get kids away from social media these school holidays? Leave the devices inside and the kids out…

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

When the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) released their recent evidence-based guide about encouraging children to play in nature, the recommendations were clear: Parents should pause and follow their child’s lead when playing in nature, helping them experiment and assess risk for themselves.

But with media regularly showcasing the risks associated with an alternative to the fresh air and green spaces of the great outdoors – social media – parents should be careful to avoid cautionary language, such as ‘be careful’, ‘not so high!’ and ‘don’t do that’, and actively encourage outdoor play to help keep kids off the screens and unafraid to explore the real world around them.

That report came out in 2023, with AIFS Research Fellow Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald saying that allowing children to push the boundaries during riskier types of play can help them develop confidence and awareness of their own limitations.

“We wouldn’t advise leaving children in highly risky situations – but sometimes it can be better to stand back
and let the child work out their own levels of comfort,” Dr MacDonald says.

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“It can also be helpful to reassure children that it’s okay to try and fail with new or tricky activities, which can
help them understand their own limits and capabilities.”

Counting the flowers

The guide was designed to help parents, as well as practitioners working in the family and child sector, better support children to interact with natural elements – including trees, plants, rocks and dirt.

Dr MacDonald says natural spaces don’t have to be particularly large or remote to help a child enjoy the benefits of accessing green space and fresh air.

“Most outdoor spaces can be suitable for nature play, including backyards, courtyards, balconies and local
parks – or even just walking around the block paying attention to trees, plants or the weather.”

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And with outdoor play providing a greener, cleaner world to explore away from electronic screens, the possibilities for school holiday or weekend play are virtually endless.

Dr MacDonald says young children can count insects, birds and flowers, balance on rocks or logs, or even draw shapes, letters or objects in the dirt by using sticks, leaves or stones. In the privacy of a front or back garden, planting, digging, making things or exploring are all beneficial for early childhood development too,

The guide also explored factors that impact the likelihood of young children engaging in nature play – including a child’s willingness to ‘get dirty’, parental assessment of their child’s capabilities, as well as health and safety concerns from parents that could curtail a child’s interest and freedom to explore outdoor play.

While Dr MacDonald understands some parents may have legitimate worries about letting children free play in a natural outdoor setting, she says it’s always worth considering “the bigger picture” of green space benefits.

“Nature play has many benefits for young children, including fostering creativity, curiosity and imagination, as well as physical challenge and development,” Dr MacDonald says.

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“Parents can sometimes underestimate their child’s abilities or be influenced by other adults when it comes to riskier types of play – but, with the right support, playing in nature can do wonders for autonomy and

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]