An outdoor nation missing trees: research reports from Tree Day

There’s a disconnect between the way Australians see themselves, and what they’re actually doing – at least when it comes to the big outdoors. For National Tree Day, Planet Ark prepared the Outdoor Lifestyle Survey and report, sponsored by Toyota Australia. The report, titled Missing Trees: the inside story of an outdoor nation, has a few findings that are rather curious in implication. For instance, the three outdoor activities and characteristics most important to the Australian identity are having relaxed leisure time, having a home with a backyard, and having barbeques with friends and family. But Australia has one of the highest levels of unpaid overtime, only half of us actually live in a house with a back yard, we have some of the largest houses in the world on increasingly small lots, and in the one month before the survey was conducted only two out of five of us had had a barbeque with friends and family, or played a friendly sport game together down at the park.

The back yard thing is interesting. There’s a really strong perception amongst us that children need space to play and that houses with backyards or farms and rural properties are the best places to bring up kids. But half of us don’t have those spaces and what we have is shrinking. As a nation we know this is a problem and we’re concerned about it – anyone with kids is even more concerned. The report goes into more detail, but lays most of the blame at the large increase in house sizes combined with rapidly shrinking lot sizes over the last couple of decades. So what’s happening with our kids – and us – instead?

Here’s a quote from the report‘s overview:

A staggering 1 in 3 parents (32%) with children under 16 years said their children have never been camping and nearly 1 in 3 parents (29%) said their children have never been bushwalking. Consistent with the findings from Planet Ark’s 2012 survey, more than 1 in 4 children (27%) have never climbed a tree, more than 1 in 4 (28%) have never cared for a vegetable garden, and nearly 1 in 3 (31%) have never planted or cared for trees or shrubs.

And another:

The survey found that about 1 in 3 respondents aged 14-64 years spend on average less than 2 hours per week doing outdoor recreational activities, such as gardening, playing sport outdoors, taking the kids to the park or walking the dog. This equates to less than 18 minutes a day, about the same amount of time it takes to eat breakfast or hang out a basket of washing. Parents reported that 1 in 4 children under 16 years spend on average less than 2 hours of their spare time per week playing in natural outdoor environments. In contrast, our love affair with technology is only getting stronger. For every hour of leisure time we spend doing outdoor recreational activity, we spend around 7 hours watching television and surfing the Internet.

7 hours “watching television and surfing the Internet” for every hour outside. Huh. Guess I’d better finish this post and go kick the kids off the morning cartoons then -grin-. But I do have the luxury of being one of the people with those large backyards, so my kids are out there pretty regularly. There’s always something to do out there, and if not I make them find something to do. This is not a coincidence – the survey established a clear link between the time Australians spend outdoors and our backyards. As the size of your backyard increases, the more time you spend outside. And there’s plenty of benefits to back yards, including social, mental and physical health but also the environmental benefits of having green spaces built into the urban fabric. But on average, we aren’t going to get our backyards back. So, other options become important. Public green spaces, community nature days, and families just getting out there and doing stuff all play a part. Governments, non-profits and community groups alike are all going to need to have strategies for maintaining the outdoor lifestyle most of us wish we had.

The 2013 report builds on two previous reports:
2012 Planting trees: just what the doctor ordered
2011 Climbing trees: getting Aussie kids back outside

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