We say: parents are the wrong thing to kick. 

Tamsin Constable writes The Wild Network's response to today's headline news on screen time.

My 11-year-old son and I stood at the side of busy dual carriageway, trying to catch a gap in the fast traffic so that we could cross to our nearest woodland. The cars zoomed by. We waited, and we waited.

I remembered this when I saw today’s headlines about the fact that pre-school children spend more than four hours a day in front of screens. I read the article and found the figure increases to five-and-a-half hours for children age five to 15. Right at the bottom is a quote from Dr Ross Cameron, an academic at Sheffield University. The paper quotes him saying, “In the past they would bat a ball against a wall or go and play in the woods – that is now very rare.”

The story’s implicit message is that children prefer iPads and screens to playing outside. The sub-text is familiar territory, too: today’s parents are BAD. Lazy. Neglectful, even. Not like the good old days, when kids would roam for miles and not come home until tea-time, hungry, tired and happy. The ongoing narrative implies that parents these days aren’t strict enough, or are simply ignorant… Just send the kids outside! And while they’re gone, throw all those horrible screens away!

Here’s what we think.

Many children spend far too much time on screens – we know this. Yes, it’s a huge problem – we make it our business to keep abreast of the evidence. And yes, they could do with more Wild Time – this is exactly what launched The Wild Network back in 2012. Our members tell us all the time about the problem of ‘screen time’. They’re also asking for help. And they know better than anyone that getting children outdoors isn’t that simple. Why? Because the opportunities to bat a ball against the wall, or go and play in the woods have been stolen from them.

- How many ‘No Ball Games’ signs have you seen?
- How many walking routes to local parks and woods are guillotined by busy roads?
- How often do young people who do meet up outside have to put up with filthy glances from passers-by, or questions from police?
- What’s happened to the funding for youth clubs?
- Why don’t (or can’t) so many parents let their children even walk to school?
- What’s happened to "the commons of mud, moss, roots and grass", as Jay Griffiths calls them in her book Kith, the places where children can play, unsupervised?

Gone are the Good Old Days (if they really were that good) – but who’s to blame?

The commons have been built on. Dug up. Polluted. Sold off. There are fences around some of them. Those that don’t have real fences are rendered inaccessible by other kinds of barriers, ones that are often less easy to discern. “Today’s children are enclosed in school and home, enclosed in cars to shuttle between them, enclosed by fear, by surveillance and poverty and enclosed in rigid schedules of time,” writes Griffiths.

The barriers to Wild Time - those things that prevent children from playing freely outside are systemic in our society today. Fear of other people, lack of time, traffic – roads designed for cars, not pedestrians. And of course those evil screens.

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Screens are not the cause. They’re the symptom.

Enclosed children will look for something to do, and every generation has its issue. TV in the 1950s, TVs and computers in the 1980s, TVs computers and video games – and now the ubiquitous Screen Problem. As technology has developed, so we have embraced it. And it is now easier than ever to reach for the screen. But screens are not the cause. They’re the symptom. It then becomes a feedback loop…

So what’s to be done? Well, while some wag their fingers at parents and others wallow in whinge-fests about the state of today’s families, we’re working hard to try and help children, families, carers and educationalists (and more) reclaim the landscape of childhood for the benefit of all. Helping change happen.

The Wild Network genuinely believes that much of the power lies in our communities. In August, we put out a call to find out how widespread the interest was. We had more than 140 expressions of interest from individuals and organisations, and the first Wild Network ‘Wild Local’ group launched recently in Edinburgh thanks to a wild mum called Anna.

There’s the problem of what some call the ‘extinction of experience’ – people who had little or no access to nature and the outdoors as kids, are now becoming parents themselves. Without the memory and nostalgia of a free-range childhood, they sometimes don’t know even how to start. Our Persil Wild Explorers App was a response to that, packed with all kinds of different, simple and local ideas about how to have fun outside.

We must demand change.

We must reclaim our commons, reunite communities, design our cities around walkers, cyclists, around children and their neighbours. And we must keep looking for solutions, tapping into the extraordinary talent and ideas out there and the deep desire for change.

Our Wild Labs programme was launched to help actively support communities and business to find ways to embrace change. Ultimately, we must challenge a system that believes that all children need to thrive is to be measured, monitored and tracked to within an inch of their lives – and a regular dose of some kind of snake oil called 'growth mindset'.

A system, in other words, that blames the individual. Me. You. Our children.

As I gripped my son’s hand firmly beside that dual carriageway, still trying to cross to our nearest woodland, I said to him, “What do you think would happen if this was all covered in grass?” His eyes lit up. “If it was like that, me and my mates would be out playing on it, all day,” he said.

We need to find local solutions for local communities to help us all take action. No one size fits all, but the more people we have, the more we can help change happen. Please join The Wild Network, be part of Wild Labs, download the Wild Explorers App – and tell your friends.

We’re making change happen. One screen at a time.

Because it’s really not all our fault.


 Like this? Read more...

Do your kids even know how to play out? Top tips for helping Wild Play.

When the kids walked home alone: Why we overcame 20 Minutes of Terror

Not playing out. Two thirds of parents have outdoor play concerns.

The Wild Network: Local The Wild Network: Local is the coming together of all kinds of different people at a local level to take on some of the issues that parents and communities face daily.

The Wild Explorers App. Over 100 super, easy, fun ideas for everyday Wild Time.


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