A manicured green lawn may look nice, but experts agree that children need to swing from branches and explore the outdoors to boost their confidence and foster an appreciation of nature. Stella Rosato examines some back yard solutions Every afternoon on their return home from nursery, Naomi Sutherland's three small children rush from the car into their home in Dubai's Meadows community. Then, instead of heading for the television or computer, they run through the house and straight outdoors again. There, they'll spend the afternoon in the family's garden amid a childhood fantasy of swings, slides, ladders and lookouts.
Sutherland shares the view of many parents, teachers, psychologists and health researchers who, remembering their own free-range, tree-climbing youths, are convinced that today's children - their afternoons fully booked with activities and homework or cloistered away from vague safety threats and affixed to electronic game screens - are missing out. There is mounting evidence that children who spend time playing and exploring outdoors, especially doing what researchers call "wild nature activities unstructured by adult attitudes" before the age of 11, demonstrate advanced cognitive function, bolstered, self-confidence and sturdier stress-management skills.
"I grew up on a farm in Australia so my life was spent outdoors and I didn't want my children to miss out on that," says Sutherland. "We wanted our children to have a great outdoor space that allowed them to play in a variety of ways that could adapt and grow with them, since they are still so young." (Her son is four and the twin girls just 21 months.) Since their suburban garden offered little more than an expanse of lawn, the family decided to search for good quality play equipment. Finding nothing locally, husband Andrew spotted the perfect playset while on a business trip to Texas, the base of Rainbow - the leading playset brand in the US.
The idea of shipping in a set for their own children escalated and, at the end of last year, with the Sutherlands set up as the UAE distributor for the prestigious brand, a large container with several Rainbow sets arrived in Dubai. The family's own play systems now act as "samples " and their garden as a "showroom" where clients can see them in situ, adapting their orders to suit their own families and space.
Although climbing walls and monkey bars are undoubtedly beneficial for exercise and advanced grand motor skills, simply being allowed to get dirty and roll around in the grass is just as important - even fostering an environmentalism that will carry a child on into adulthood. Child psychologists are increasingly fretting that if exposure to nature is not allowed and encouraged during the early years of life, biophobia - an aversion to nature - may develop.
It's easy to excuse our children in the UAE. We may have beaches and desert galore for them to enjoy but, given the harsh summers and a predilection for neat landscaping (and a dearth of mature plants in many gardens), there's a distinct lack of "domestic" wild spaces for them to call their own. But, as Sutherland maintains, it is not impossible to raise children who are drawn to the outside: "It certainly is more challenging in the UAE but, given shade and a space that is truly theirs, with opportunities for different types of play, there is no reason why they can't be outdoors for most of the year."
Sam Scarborough, the South African author of Cool Spaces for Kids, agrees: "It is very important to give kids a sense of place and space. They love being contained in an area that they feel belongs to them." Scarborough's book offers ideas on how to create tents and teepees from bamboo poles, fabric and hula hoops. "Pitching a tent in the garden and adding a few comfy cushions and blankets is a very easy way of getting kids to go outside and play."
Creating a space full of wonder and adventure does, however, take a bit of imagination on the part of parents - and the ability to digress from the mainstream standard of beauty: manicured lawns and areas that preclude adult-free play, such as a swimming pool surrounded by hard paving. Research of children's preferences by US-based White Hutchinson Learning and Leisure Group, shows that spaces designed for children should be "fully naturalised with plants, trees, flowers, water, dirt, sand, mud, animals and insects, but also rich with a variety of play opportunities of every imaginable type".
The thing about children's spaces, says Karuna Sawlani, a director of Royal Gardenscape in Dubai, is that if your budget or inclination doesn't stretch to a state-of the art playset (Rainbow Play Systems start at about Dh9,000), there is plenty that parents can do to adapt a regular garden for children: "Obviously the first priority is safety - they want to be out of your line of vision but the area has to be secure," she advises. "Their space should be easily accessible via stepping stones or some other type of pathway that demarcates their area from the adult space. Children love to explore and the whole point is to indulge their curiosity by creating a visual treat with colours, texture and shapes."
Scarborough is a great believer in the importance of giving children a place to grow seeds, and planting a garden is yet another way to encourage them to spend time outside. "Watching a plant grow is a lovely experience for a child and it's even more fun if you can enjoy the crop as a meal." She recommends hardy herbs such as rocket or rosemary and easy, fast-growing seasonals, such as sunflowers (websites such as Disney's Family Fun www.familyfun.go.com, show how to construct a simple Sunflower "house" for children to sit in, using bamboo stays.)
"Natural play objects also exercise a child's imagination, so piles of pebbles or pine cones can be used in all kinds of games," says Sawlani. Royal Gardenscape's best-sellers are little edgings and signboards that give children a sense of personal ownership, as do the various themes of garden art: "Fairies, animals, outer space are all popular and they allow children to really play around with their imagination."
Water features such as fountains with self-contained pumps also fascinate children, as do bird baths and sundials that are both stimulating and attractive. "In essence, children need a space to stimulate all the senses," she says. Despite an increasing awareness that junior really does require his or her own slice of the great outdoors, landscapers admit to seeing little call for them in residential settings so far. However, schools and nurseries are seeing the value of setting aside areas for children to experience nature. At Dubai's JESS Jumeirah Primary School children are drawn instinctively to its shady sensory garden (its concept created by Cracknell Landscaping), where they can experience water bubbling over rocks into a limpid pool, touch the gnarled bark and roots of the garden's ancient tree, and sit in the gazebo and hear and see the breeze ruffling windchimes and dream catchers.
Ask any adult what childhood place they hold most dear and it will be undoubtedly their den - that most secret of childhood spaces, much loved and fiercely guarded. But even that childhood preserve, it appears, is fast disappearing. Dr Roger Hart, an environmental psychologist at New York's City University has studied the importance of children's dens for more than 30 years. In the 1970s he questioned almost 100 children from a town in Vermont (an area offering untold opportunity for wild, outdoor play) and found that the majority had made at least one den. Three decades later he returned to the town and found that such play had all but disappeared - very few children had created their own outdoor escapes, or even knew what they were.
David Sobel, a developmental psychologist and the author of Children's Special Places, argues that the den is the child's sense of self being born. He says that, from the age of seven to 11, a den, or special outside space, gives children a chance to create a home from home that becomes a manifestation of who they are. "It is the chrysalis out of which the butterfly is born," he says. "We have to give children a chance to love the outdoors before we ask them to save it."
Of course, the king of the dens has always been the treehouse, a fact not lost on a Dubai company, The Three Monkeys Treehouse Company: "There are so few place now that children can go and be completely on their own away from the distractions of TV or computers," says a spokesman. "We just think our tree houses give children the ideal space to make their own; a place to read, do their homework or just live by their own rules for a little while every day."
Few clients of The Three Monkeys have trees sturdy enough to build the houses in - an inconvenience neatly sidestepped by the company: most of the houses are on stilts that are cemented into the ground, and children reach them by a ladder or stairway. This is one outdoor space that children can use year-round, as air-conditioning and lighting can be installed in the beautifully crafted dens (one of the owners studied furniture design). In one of the company's latest projects, zip-wires and rope bridges connect several houses.
Findings by Steiner schools show that children become far more creative while ensconced in a den or their own secret outdoor space, and are much more successful in imaginative activities such as journal or story writing.
Whether they have budding authors on their hands or not, parents like Sutherland remain convinced of the power of the outdoors: "Childhood is such a short time and goes too quickly; it's so important to make the most of every minute."
Rainbow Play Systems - www.rainbowplay.com Royal Gardenscape, Dubai - www.royalgardenscape.com The Three Monkeys Treehouse Co, Dubai - firstname.lastname@example.org