How to get your kids further from virtual and closer to nature

Engaging in the outdoors is a great way for children to learn about nature. Pix - Low Boon Tat

Like most modern day parents, homemaker Shobha Balakrishnan had “been there, done that” when it came to organising activities for her youngest child, Asha Mia Kumar, 10. They had gone bowling, rock climbing in a sports arena and spent hours at play gyms in shopping malls.

“My husband and I were always on the look-out for outdoor activities for her. We used to take her to play centres in shopping malls but that only provided limited fun. Due to safety issues, we never allowed Asha to go to the playground alone,” says the mother of two.

Asha’s childhood activities were confined to the indoors, in the comfort of air-conditioned spaces. They had to dig into their pockets for all these activities, ranging between RM20 and RM80.

Shoba recognised that her children’s play activities were so different from hers growing up. Asha knew little of her parents’ childhood games like galah panjang, hopscotch and jump rope, or “zero point”.

It dawned on Shobha to introduce these games to Asha and her peers.

“As a child, I had so much fun playing these games with friends, regardless of race or religion. These days, children prefer digital tools as opposed to outdoor activities. I felt there was a need to get my children out in the sun for a bit of fun,” says the 41-year-old mother from Kuala Lumpur.

Glued To The Screen

Raising children in the digital age is challenging, as most are immersed in the virtual world with the easy availability of gadgets. The lure of social networking platforms (Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram) and access to information online make virtual entertainment so compelling, not only for adults but also children.

Furthermore, children born in recent times have never known a life without the virtual world.

Researchers from Harvard University found that adolescents in the United States who spend long hours on tech devices are 43% more likely to be obese, compared to teens who spend less time on screened devices.

In the US, children as young as 13 are being treated at “smartphone rehabs” for “digital technology addiction” reports news website The Independent.

Yamuna (third from left) was inspired to set up M.O.V.E to introduce her children, Ajay (right) and Asha (centre), to the outdoors. |
Shobha Balakrishnan (3rd from left) was inspired to set up M.O.V.E to introduce her children, Ajay (right) and Asha (centre), to the outdoors.

As a parent who recalls a different way of life, Shobha is determined to give her children a more balanced lifestyle.

“Times have changed. Children seem more enthralled with their electronic gadgets rather than the outdoors. While it is important for children to move along with the times, I worry that they are more interested in their devices than in interacting with their peers,” says Shobha.

Come Out To Play

But Shobha did more than fret and nag at her children.

Last year, she partnered with her friend, engineer Yamuna Chandran, 39, and founded M.O.V.E. (Moving Off Virtual Experience), an outdoor playgroup session to help children disengage from their gadgets.

“We approached a group of mothers, sharing our thoughts on the lack of space for children to go outdoors and play in a safe environment. Yamuna and I realised there were many like-minded parents who wanted to share their childhood experiences with their children. This fuelled our passion to launch M.O.V.E,” says Shobha.

They started organising traditional game sessions.

For about two and a half hours, they teach children seven to eight traditional games, local and foreign.

About 30-50 children, aged between three and 17, attend these fun get-togethers at different parks around the Klang Valley. The game sessions are held once or twice a month.

“We keep each session fresh by offering new, entertaining and fun-filled games,” says Shobha, who charges between RM20 and RM30 per child for the play session.

M.O.V.E also organises special themed sessions such as M.O.V.E. Amazing Race (similar to the reality TV game show), M.O.V.E. Easter Garden party (where an Easter egg hunt was held) and M.O.V.E. Raya, featuring Malay-styled games like baling selipar and tarik upih.

Yesterday, there was a M.O.V.E Merdeka party, held in conjunction with the country’s Independence Day celebrations.

“We enjoy the process of researching, reviewing, preparing and creating the activities for each session. It takes about three weeks to organise our events. It includes making props, finding suitable parks for activities and setting up the venue,” Shobha says.

Engaging in the outdoors is a great way for children to learn about nature. Pix - Low Boon Tat |
Engaging in the outdoors is a great way for children to learn about nature. Photo: Low Boon Tat

The preparation is time-consuming but Shobha is always rewarded by the children’s enjoyment of their efforts.

“All our hard work pays off when I’m greeted by faces of children beaming with joy at the end of every session. Nothing is better than having a child say thank you for the great time they experienced.”

Kenesha Anne Isitor, nine, says, “The sessions are so fun as I can play so many fun games like belon achah, tarik upih and sack race. My all-time favourite is the water balloon fight. I also love making new friends and playing with my brother and parents.”

Her mother Gweneth Fernandez says the play sessions are a great way to get Kanesha and her brother Ethan Jude Isitor, eight, interested in outdoor games.

“I want my children to be exposed to the joys of outdoor games that I grew up playing and loving. M.O.V.E. allows us to spend quality time together as a family. It’s nice knowing my children enjoy playing outdoor games, just like how we used to as kids,” says the administrative and finance manager.

M.O.V.E. also gives her children the opportunity to mix and mingle with other children, adds the 40-year-old.

“My children get to communicate and interact with other children. Not only can they gain new experiences, they can enhance their social skills.”

Get Down And Dirty

Like Shobha, homemaker Shamila Ong is also actively organising activities to encourage her three children to explore the outdoors.

“They get to behave like children and enjoy their childhood. Plus, they learn how to appreciate nature, which is priceless. These activities also bring families and communities together.

Ong introduced her children, between six and 13, to the outdoors when they were toddlers.

Shamila Ong hopes exposure outdoors will her children aware of the roles they can play in conservation. Photo: Low Boon Tat |
Shamila Ong hopes outdoor exposure will her children aware of the roles they can play in conservation. Photo: Low Boon Tat

“My husband and I are nature lovers. My parents have an orchard in Seremban, abundant with fruit trees, vegetables and animals. Thankfully, my children are always excited to go on jungle trekking trips with our like-minded friends.

“It excites them to spot wildlife including frogs, leeches, giant millipedes, monkeys and different types of plants,” shares the 40-year-old Ong.

Every week, Ong and a group of friends make it a point to organise outdoor activities for their children.

The activities include hiking, herping (searching for snakes and reptiles) and recycling. Five families participate in the get-together sessions. Children are of different races and are between one and 16 years old.

By joining in, children get to engage with each other and learn about different cultures, traditions. They also learn mutual respect.

“Children understand their Muslims friends can’t join them during Ramadan as they are on a one-month fast. They also respect that Hindus don’t consume beef and Muslims don’t consume pork. When we  prepare food, we ensure it is halal. I also teach my children to be colour blind so race is never an issue in our group.”

Ong’s children also attend seminars on green living, photography, flora and fauna, mammal life and marine life. They participate in other activities such as tree planting, and forest and beach clean ups.

Her eldest daughter Maya Katherine Selvaraj, 13, also participates in bushcraft and jungle survival classes and is also a junior beach guide.

Maya enjoys the outings as she gets to enjoy nature with her friends.

“Some of the best things in life are free. It’s always fun to explore the outdoors with buddies.”

Ong hopes the exposure her children have gained will make them aware of the roles they can play in conservation.

“Through these activities, kids can appreciate the importance of the ecosystem. They understand how they can make a difference by doing their part, just as British primatologist Jane Goodall said, ‘it makes a difference even if it was just one person doing it’,” adds Ong, whose family supports environmental groups like Tak Nak Straw and Zero Waste Malaysia.

While Ong understands a world without Internet connectivity has become almost unimaginable, she believes parents should supervise the hours their children spend online.

Screen addiction can result in a lack of social skills and human relations, she says.

“Too much exposure to computer games could result in them being highly stimulated. This could result in children finding simple tasks like reading difficult,” says Ong, who believes children should be introduced to electronic devices only when they are nine years old. Ong believes parents should also be mindful of their influence.

“Parents themselves should get off their gadgets especially when they are back from work at the end of the day. Set aside time for sending e-mails or replying text messages. Instead of focussing too much on gadgets and technology, connect with your children at home.

Expose them to the outdoors, and enjoy nature together as a family.

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