We think that it's their devices vs outside play, but is it?

A recent report of research commissioned by Persil UK’s Dirt is Good campaign, showed parents think their kids should play out more. And those same parents think that kids spend too much time on devices. A plethora of research supports the findings that kids need outdoor play to thrive. And yet, feedback from our community here at The Wild Network, tells us that many kids wish their parents would let them out more.

It doesn’t seem like rocket science to fix this problem.

It doesn’t need to be. It really shouldn’t be. Parents want kids outside. Kids want parents to let them outside. Yet, there are a myriad of reasons – of barriers – to kids getting outside. They are most easily summarised into groups, listed as FEAR, SPACE, TECH and TIME.  They are real and they differ according to age, demographics, race, culture and location.

Let’s say a parent overcomes all of these barriers, this multitude of fears. They manage to prise the children off their evil devices (pesky technology). We shall assume it's not raining (pesky weather). Let’s persuade them that it is safe outside (really, yes, we know that’s not what they say at school… pesky safety talks.) And so, let’s then applaud the fact that they have released them into a safe place to play, away from strangers, traffic, hidden dangers, gangs, drugs etc. Let’s say they do get them outside and set them free. What do the kids do out there?

Free play outdoors?

Wild Time, as we call it, has been in decline for so long that it’s not a hobby or activity easily passed down. Many old traditional games are banned in school. Remember British Bulldog? No? It was probably banned when you were in nursery. Remember Conkers? No? You’re not alone. We can’t pass on the games that our parents played, because they’re socially unacceptable, or we just don't remember them. You can’t (easily) take a magnifying glass to school anymore. Elastics? No. Penknife? You’d be arrested, along with your child. So kids are stuck in a no-go zone. They struggle to find acceptable games and many really don’t know how to play, or what to do outside.

We need to show kids how to play again.

We witnessed this need first hand when we spent our first family holiday in Scotland. After driving for 10 hours to a highland forest, we were rewarded with relative solitude and a back garden of open woodland and prime exploring territory for kids. Ours were aged 3, 5 and 6. The Adventurers!

After opening the back door and decreeing, rather dramatically, “You are free! Go out and play, fair children!" (Or, perhaps, “Go away, we’re trying up unpack your 42 bags of soft toys and blankies!”) we let them out. Expecting to see them many hours later, covered in mud having had an ‘exposition’ of Winnie the Pooh like proportions, we were aghast when they returned five minutes later.

“Can we watch TV now, we’re done outside?” they said. “Ooh, what did you do, girls?” we asked. ‘We walked around.” “And did what?” “Nothing” came the puzzled reply. “Can we come in?” “No you can’t! Go back and play!”

Training the boomerang kids.

Back they traipsed to the forest – a terrifying, dangerous, two full metres away from the patio doors that spanned the entire width of our cabin. We could see them tiptoeing through the heather like the dainty little angels we knew they were not. We were witnessing something more bizarre than Grandma feeding them chocolate before dinner (again). We slowly realised that our girls did not know how to play out. No idea. Our cosseted tech-savvy trendy little town-dwelling girls had seemingly no sense of exploration, adventure, or ingenuity. Just heaps of confusion and a longing for the iPad and Peppa Pig.

We had to send them out five times to play. The last resort – of course – necessitated us going outside with them. We led the way in our den building and secret pathway finding. We showed those kids how to spot a mushroom, oh yes; how to listen for a woodpecker; how to find pinecones; and how to spot burrows. We went for Ray Mears, Bear Grylls and David Attenborough all rolled together, with a touch of Michaela Strachan and Chris Packham for good measure. We taught them exactly how to play outside. It may have been extreme, but we really were desperate. And it worked.

Now, six years later, like frogs returning to our favourite pond, we go back to the same place every year with the kids. We replay our routine, with much amusement (to ourselves, not our growing young women). We throw open the back door and shout “Go and play in the forest!” and laugh as we remember the first time, when we had to send them out again and again, and frustratingly again. Now we don’t see them for hours. We drink tea and sit in beautiful silence, grateful that we once invested an afternoon showing them how to play.

Every now and then, just for fun, we join them. However, they can now climb far higher, run much faster and, increasingly, have a lot more energy than we do. We try and keep up. But as they say: teach them well and they will show you the way!


Natalie Johnson is our Wild Time Partnerships Manager and is working hard on partnering her three kids with nature!


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