Once upon a time, when I was a child – and probably when you were too – we took it for granted that once our parents thought we were old enough and confident enough to manage we would play outside by ourselves or with our friends. We would frequently leave the house after breakfast with no more parental notice than a kiss on the cheek and an instruction to ‘be back by…’. It was understood that we would range through the neighbourhood freely, and find our way back home once we were tired or hungry (usually both).
If this sounds like a fairy story today then that’s not just because I started with ‘Once upon a time’. For most children in the UK, there has been a huge decrease over the past thirty years in access to outdoor areas near their homes. I don’t just mean woods and fields (though I do also mean woods and fields) but also streets and urban areas. One survey concluded that since 1980, the range that adults consider children should be permitted to navigate unsupervised has decreased by 70%. Today, just 21% of children regularly play outside, compared with 71% of their parents. Increasingly children’s independent mobility is restricted by traffic and parental fear, which in turn leads them to spend much of their time indoors or at organised activities.
The lack of opportunity to play out and range has a huge impact on children’s health and wellbeing – both mentally and physically – and on their resourcefulness and resilience. The National Trust’s Natural Childhood Report, reported that:
- ‘On average, Britain’s children watch more than 17 hours of television a week: that’s almost two-and-a-half hours per day, every single day of the year.
- ‘British children also spend more than 20 hours a week online
- ‘Around three in ten children in England aged between two and 15 are either overweight or obese.’
- ‘One in ten children aged between five and 16 have a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder.’
However, there is something we can all do. It’s not complicated, doesn’t require much, or even any, equipment, and doesn’t need to cost any money at all. Research into children’s lifestyles consistently and overwhelmingly shows that being outdoors, especially in wild places, and being allowed to play at least partly unsupervised, vastly improves children’s well being, allowing them to learn about themselves and their relationship with the world around them. Outdoor play helps children manage risk, interact with other people and develops strength and health. They also, and this is the most important part, have huge amounts of fun.
If you want to get started with Wild Play, it’s easy and free. At first you may want to stay with your children, but try not to get too involved with your child’s play – let them decide what to do and how to play, that’s crucial.
Invite a few local children and their parents to join you when you feel confident, and let them play in the garden while you’re in the house. If they can play between neighbouring gardens that’s even better, but remember that your job is to supply snacks and drinks, and to keep out of the way! It’s a good idea to set boundaries of where they can and cannot go and remind them of road safety. Leave your door ajar so that you can hear them and check on them from time to time, but don’t interfere!
Farther afield, why not go on a walk to explore your local area – fields and woods are natural places to wild play. You may have woods or green spaces nearby that you don’t know about, so go an adventure as a family and see what you can find. When you’re there you can try den building, wild hide and seek, or animal spotting, and chances are your children will spot lots of places they’ll want to revisit later without you, so don’t forget to take some time out and let them play by themselves – they are the experts after all.