Reflections On . . . Outdoor Activities and Activation Energy

By Mira Dobutowitsch

Updated / Wednesday, 19 May 2021 09:54

During the weeks leading up to Christmas, my 5-year-old housemate and I had a ritual: after dinner, we would put on our coats, hats, scarves, wellies, and go in search of adventure. There was talk of ninja schools, monsters, goblins, fairies, and superheroes. There was running, hiding, tiptoeing, imaginary spying, finding short-cuts and hidden play spaces, puddle jumping, and a shared appreciation for creative Christmas lights displays. Stalking through the neighbourhood, I thought about how we have become pandemic-induced outdoor people, and I asked myself whether we would have done this, had it not been for the pandemic. I began to wonder if our rekindled connection with the outdoors will outlast the pandemic. Of course, being outdoors and in nature is associated with all kinds of benefits, both for adults and children. There has been a push to encourage outdoor play, such as climbing, jumping, running, and skipping.

It seems that one of the side effects of the pandemic is that we were forced to make use of our immediate surroundings again. This made me think about the concept of affordance (Gibson, 1979). Affordances can be described as action possibilities embedded in the environment. An inbuilt invitation to interact, much like the way a chair affords sitting on, or how a trampoline invites jumping. This is sometimes seen as the most intuitive way of interacting with something and is taken into consideration when designing digital devices, apps,  and other software (although my grandmother might disagree with just how intuitive technology is!). The idea of designing environments that invite a certain type of interaction has been operationalised creatively, much as those piano staircases invite us to take the stairs rather than freeloading on the escalator. Have you ever seen desire paths? Or maybe statues that everyone seems to touch in the same spot? Affordances can be observed in little things, but also in big things, and have been discussed in relation to children’s play and play spaces. The idea is that if a space invites climbing, jumping, running, and does this in a fun way, children are more likely to engage.

This all makes good sense with the image of a sunny day and an adventure playground in mind, but I have to admit that wandering around the housing estate on a wet, dark evening does seem neither intuitive nor inviting on reflection. So there is more to affordances: not everybody sees the same action possibilities, and not all possibilities are realised. At some stage, we stop jumping into puddles and circumvent them instead (speak for yourself, I hear you say!). I would like to think that I have developed a box of tools which affect affordances, mainly by building obstacle courses to avoid becoming trapped by my own laziness. My phone charger’s cable is so short that it is too annoying to dabble with my digital friend while it is plugged in, and if I go shopping with a list (and not when hungry), I tend to buy more fruit and vegetables.

Coming back to the outdoors, I recognise that oftentimes, even in environments that afford being active, I still don’t do it. There is something in between here, something that helps to translate possibilities into actions, the fuel that helps me to overcome my laziness, the spark that lights the fire, like chemistry’s activation energy that provides the needed boost. Whether we make use of affordances depends on the effort to do so (Withagen et al., 2012). This was also seen in a study by Schiffer and Roberts (2018). They asked a whole bunch of adults about what they think would make them happy in the long run. Then they asked them what kind of activities they engaged in typically. What they found was that, even though participants realised that exercising, gardening, or helping others would contribute more to their long-term happiness, they tended to opt for more low effort activities, such as watching TV or using social media. Engagement in high effort activities, even though we recognise them as being valuable, are sabotaged and hampered by the lack of activation energy and effort to engage in them.

Of course, once we start something, it becomes easier over time. I have joined the sourdough bread baking club, and with practice the task became less daunting, and has now become a habit. So here is my hope: that the pandemic has served as the push we needed to spend more time outdoors and be more active; that being outside has become a habit that will outlast imposed restrictions. Meanwhile, with the Christmas lights long gone, the 5-year-old and I have moved on to gardening…

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Dr Mira Dobutowitsch is a Lecturer at Marino Institute of Education. Combining psychology and education, she is interested in all things learning and development, the challenges and opportunities of contemporary childhood, play, alternative pedagogies, navigating children’s engagement with digital devices, and statistics.