Been to the playground lately? If you have you might have noticed there are more kids there than ever. And it’s not solely because kids love the slippery slide. Australia is in the middle of an apartment-building boom. Where once a flat used to be the place you moved into before you settled down for a life of quiet domesticity, it is now, for an increasing amount of families, the new normal.
Blame the current housing market, the crowding out of Australia’s capital cities and, of course, the recent surge in residential building approvals. What all of this means is that our lifestyles are now out-sourced. We don’t swim in the backyard pool – we go to the pool. We don’t sit down to dinner, we go to dinner. And it’s not just the playground that’s filling up – you might have noticed your once quietly hip local cafe is now overflowing with prams.
Twenty years ago, the choice to look around for a bigger (read: freestanding) place for you and the kids was largely about the backyard, and to a lesser extent, the lawn. How else were you going to play cricket with your neighbours? Where else could you stop and literally smell the flowers? Or get up close and personal with an ant colony?
The advantages were obvious: more room, not just for children to exercise and explore, but to do so without adult supervision. And supervision is the key word here, because while certain high rise developments are now beginning to include childcare centres as part of their facilities, nothing really beats letting your small children wander off to do their own thing while you take a break, secure in the knowledge that they’re perfectly safe in the great outdoors. What’s more, it’s free.
It’s true, there are myriad benefits to living in an apartment with the kids. If you’re close to the city, (and many of these buildings are) the commute to work is likely to be short, which means more time with family. Parks, playgrounds, shops and cafes are usually close, too. But for a country known – and loved – for its “free-range” lifestyle, where sport has been prized over indoor pursuits, this represents a deep cultural shift. According to the latest research, Australians are turning to the arts in higher numbers than ever before, with reading topping the list. Online engagement with the arts is similarly high.
Other high-rise cities, such as Manhattan and Singapore, may have begun that way due to exorbitant housing prices, but they’ve managed to thrive in large part because their cultural infrastructure (restaurants, galleries, architecture and shops) is so rich.
What does it say about Australia’s shifting values that more and more of us would rather forgo a backyard to live in a certain suburb that may be considered culturally rich? Is it snobby? Is it just the price we pay for occupying space in cities with expensive real estate? It looks as if it’s a little of both, which is no bad thing.
More pressing, perhaps, is the answer to the broader question parents want to know: is it depriving our children of much needed interaction with nature? Research has confirmed what our own parents always told us, that being outside is good for you, and not simply because you get to run around. According to Dr. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, putting your feet on the grass lessens stress, improves critical thinking and may guard against depression.
But, while growing up without a backyard may appear on the surface to be a great Australian blasphemy, it needn’t be a passport for a dysfunctional childhood. According to pediatric occupational therapist and parenting expert, Dr Anne Zachry, “if a family doesn’t have a backyard, a park is the next best thing”.
But what of the aforementioned “supervision” factor? Don’t kids need to explore on their own? And don’t parents need, well, a break?
“Keeping a close eye on your little one does not mean that parents have to be hovering over them during play at a park,” says Zachry. “Give the child some space to explore the natural surroundings. For example, my friends and I used to have “pretend” tea parties using acorn shells! Left to their own devices, children will use their imaginations and the sky is the limit for play.”
Lest we forget, too, the one factor that, when it comes to the Australian outdoors, has remained steadily popular with parents and children alike: the beach.