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I, Primate

I, Primate

Miel Sahgal shares thoughts for teachers and parents on the role of outdoors in raising the human child.

Photo: Tara Sahgal.

The summer holidays are almost here, and once the initial excitement of alarm-free mornings and upcoming travel wears off, parents can expect to hear those most dreaded words – “I’m bored!”But before handing over the nearest screen-based gadget or signing the kids up for ‘summer camp’, it might be worth thinking back a little.

A few decades ago, we were probably just shooed off to ‘go find something to do’. Through hot summer afternoons, bands of children in mango-stained clothes inhabited complex imaginary worlds (ours involved upturned tables, bed sheets, gypsies and caravans); and as the sun got gentler, evenings were spent playing and exploring outdoors till dusk. No adult supervision, no technology, no classes – just play.

Young mammals are particularly playful, since they depend more on learning than on inborn instincts unlike, say, young reptiles or birds. Play is how little primates are programmed to learn – through exploration, discovery and trial and error. Ironically, as we crank up the academic pressure on urban Indian children who now have less time to play outdoors, educationists across the globe agree that one of the clear positive outcomes of play is improved learning.

The structured, adult-directed summer camps, classes and organised sports that have been gaining popularity help with enrichment or fighting childhood obesity, but they don’t have the same effects as true play. In unstructured group games of chor-police or ‘lock and key’ (where younger kids are often kacha limbu – allowed to play, but their points don’t ‘count’), kids, not coaches, collectively negotiate who makes it to the team, what the rules are, and what position each person plays. Each time someone doesn’t get selected, plays unfairly, or has things go against their wishes they learn key social skills: to cooperate and relate with peers, resolve conflict and empathise. They learn to regulate their emotions: carry on despite being upset, control anger to make the game last longer, enhance impulse control and build emotional resilience.

An important emotion to master is fear, and children have an inbuilt appetite for risk, playing outside, swinging from trees or jumping over rocks to satisfy this basic primate drive. Young mammals at play constantly test the boundaries of danger, challenging their bodies, and learning to control fear. Coaches and ‘Football Sirs’, on the other hand, are risk-averse, wary of injury happening under their watch and providing little opportunity for children to independently experiment with perceived dangers.

Left alone to relieve boredom, children are internally motivated to discover their own unique interests unaffected by external praise or rewards, it is when they are free to create and problem solve. By contrast, today’s fast-tracked childhoods are packed with early, consistent academic pressure and competitive extracurricular activities. Sadly, in India’s cities pediatricians are seeing increased stress and burnout, previously only the domain of adults. Here an over-scheduled childhood wields a double whammy– drastically reducing a child’s best source of stress relief – unstructured play outdoors. Children lost in a world of play start to feel calm, keeping anxiety and depression at bay; and simply some downtime in nature is known to have measurable beneficial health impacts.

Perhaps it is time tore-examine priorities in our children’s lives. By unraveling the golden strings of ballet classes and tuitions, piano practice and Taekwondo, we could set them free a little. Free to kick a ball around, explore the corners of the garden or rally the troops for a session of gully cricket. We must resist the temptation to ‘optimise’ our children’s every waking moment, pushing them to ‘succeed’. Instead, we could look ahead at the slowly shifting definition of success, and the importance of raising emotionally resilient adults with passion, curiosity, creativity and other byproducts of child-driven play.

Abandoning the resume-fattening treadmill of urban childrearing might hold some benefits for parents too. We don’t have to jump up and play with our kids, or have them studiously enriched or entertained. Perhaps the next ‘I’m bored ’could be met with a gentle nudge to go play outside, while we curl deeper into the sofa and get back into reading our own book, leaving our children to their own devices, and nature.

Miel Sahgal is a parent, biophiliac and megaphone for children and nature.


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