The grass is always greener when it's real and outdoors.
That's the view of academics and teachers who have criticised the Education Department for letting inner-city child care centres operate without any outdoor space.
Three Melbourne centres have recently been granted exemptions to national regulations which state that they must provide every child with at least seven square metres of outdoor space.
They have instead created "simulated outdoor environments" – think synthetic grass, murals of forests and clouds, pot plants, sand pits in plastic shells and fake trees made out of concrete pillars.
The move puts children at risk of developing short-sightedness and sets a dangerous precedent, according to University of Melbourne associate professor in early childhood studies Kay Margetts.
She pointed to research which links low levels of natural light with myopia.
"Children need to be outdoors and they need to be able to have opportunities to look into the distance if they want to develop long sightedness," she said.
"Where is the fresh air, where is the sunlight, where is the exposure to seasonal changes?"
Sisters Ruby and Evie play in the Carlton Gardens. Photo: Josh Robenstone
As well as benefiting the eyes, experts say outdoor play encourages risk-taking, helps children develop important coordination skills and muscle strength and is a protector against obesity.
Following complaints from teachers, the Australian Education Union met with the department last year to raise concerns about its approval of childcare centres without outdoor space.
"For children to develop in a healthy way physically and mentally they need space to explore and an opportunity to connect with nature," the union's early childhood vice-president Martel Menz said.
"We want to make sure that they aren't cooped up in artificial environments."
The department has signed off on waivers for centres in Highpoint, Collins Street and Melbourne Central where there is limited access to suitable land for childcare services.
Only About Children, which runs a centre on level five of Melbourne Central and has been granted an exemption, has tried to recreate nature with a giant sandpit, a mural of trees, indoor plants and play equipment on artificial grass.
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