Let them play – outdoors

OK, a picnic isn't roaming free - but it surely seeds the idea of a free range childhood.

This blog post is by Nicola Baird sharing ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children. All ideas that tend to encourage an outdoor childhood. For more info about parenting see my book Homemade Kids, or for my website click here 

There’s a new shocking report asking us to reflect on how we bring up kids. It’s picking up the concerns first identified by the US’s Richard Louv, who coined the term “Nature Defecit Disorder”. See here or his provocative books Last Child in the Woods or Nature Principle which uses the first book’s theme – nature defecit disorder – and applies it to unhappy adulthoods.

Now in the UK, the National Trust report finds that in just one generation:

  • Fewer than ten per cent of kids play in wild places; down from 50 per cent a generation ago
  • The roaming radius for kids has declined by 90 per cent in one generation (thirty years)
  • Three times as many children are taken to hospital each year after falling out of bed, as from falling out of trees
  • A 2008 study showed that half of all kids had been stopped from climbing trees, 20 per cent had been banned from playing conkers or games of tag

Seems that children are consequently losing the sort of skills everyone used to have:

  • One in three could not identify a magpie
  • Half could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp
  • But nine out of 10 could recognise a Dalek.

It’s horrible to think how little our children and their friends know about the natural world. Obviously it’s not every child – today my 10 year old and I identified the first flowering cowslip in a flowerbed on the way to Crouch End. Not long after we saw the first suggestion of bloom on the hawthorn tree (loads of people confuse this with blackthorn although once you know, they really are very different). Apparently you can teach nature ID skills so long as you get the child before they’re 12. Rubbish really, I learnt to identify native British tree species only after going on a BTCV course as a 30something.

A dog walking friend told me last week she often asks in writers’ workshops “what’s the most dangerous thing you’ve done?” If my mum was playing this game she could tell the times she and her elder brother flattened themselves against the gale to edge around the lighthouse light, 15m or so up, right over the rocks and terrible tides of Strangford Lough. I cringe thinking about the danger my mum put herself in. But it meant she had no worries about letting me go out riding on a pony (who wasn’t great in traffic, had no brakes and was far too strong for me!)  from eight-years-old onwards. In contrast my workshop writer friend says some of the children accompanying parents in her sessions say they left the top off a pen overnight… Silly? Perhaps. Dangerous? No!

Without understanding risk and danger it is hard to make good judgement calls about what’s safe for either you, or your friends – or your (their) children. Or your career, say, or what level of undress you should post yourself in on Facebook

Getting back to nature. It could be resolved says report author TV’s Stephen Moss:

Let them be free-range kids
“We have all seen the headlines about the decline in children’s play in the outdoors.

“We all know the benefits being outdoors can bring, and as parents we want our children to spend more time outdoors than they do.

“But despite this overwhelming evidence and the different initiatives and schemes run by organisations across the UK, our kids are spending less and less time in the outdoors.

“The time to act is now, whilst we still have a generation of parents and grandparents who grew up outdoors and can pass on their experience and whilst there remains a determination to do something positive in this area.

“Organisations that have an interest in this area, whether working in our towns and cities or in the countryside, have to connect what they are doing and commit to a long-term approach that really makes a difference.”

What next?
The National Trust is planning a two month inquiry – so you can provide ideas, suggestions, or just follow what’s happening as a conversation. See:

More information about the inquiry, including details of how to contribute

There will also be a twitter feed @outdoor_nation, where the National Trust will be using the hashtag #naturalchildhood to keep the debate and ideas flowing, or email: outdoor.nation@nationaltrust.org.uk.  The inquiry will close on 25 May 2012.

More ideas
Try looking at the link if you want practical help letting kids Love Outdoor Play, here  – all sorts of ideas and organisations are linked to this fab group.

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2 Comments on “Let them play – outdoors”

  1. Karin Says:

    I used to play in the local copse when I was 8 and on waste ground next to our house in Canada when I was only 5 or 6.

    If there is a ‘wild place’ nearby then children can play there from a young age, but with ‘wild places’ becoming further away from most children as so many such places are built on, it’s probably best to wait until they are older.

    At any age they should go with friends, not alone, in case of accident. I got stuck up a tree once, because some boys wouldn’t let me down, so my sister went home to tell my parents. Interestingly the boys didn’t attempt to climb the tree, which was quite an easy one to climb.

    Our kids began to go out and about without us from their early teens. You have to judge how responsible the children are and how safe the area is and then teach them how to get about safely.

    • homemadekids Says:

      hi Karin, yes where you live makes a huge difference, as does the age and sense of the child. The biggest risk are cars if you live anywhere near roads. But even if families supervise heavily they can also give kids clues as to how to play a bit more creatively. I try never to say “Don’t fall”. Instead I run through the risks and then leave it up to them – I think experience is a far better teacher. And if you are a nervous type (not you, your kids are big now!) then look away. And don’t let the kids wander off with phones, even if they say they want to take photos. It’s just asking for trouble – either injury to the phone, loss or, worse, a theft. Nicola

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