Sparkle and stories: connecting kids with nature through outdoor play

Last week Natural Childhood intern, Tom Seaward, looked at the part learning outdoors could play in reconnecting children and nature. This week he focuses on outdoor play.

Weaving through the conference crowd, the two children marched to the front of the room, wide nervous grins across their faces.

The year 2 pupils from Waterville Primary School had come to talk to delegates at last month’s Play England conference on outdoor and adventure play, ‘Explore. Play. Connect’, about getting muddy and making pizza on their class visits to Shiremoor Adventure Playground, North Tyneside. Sat in the middle of the hall, surrounded by hardened play experts, was me, feeling green and inexperienced and looking more nervous than the children.

The two children were followed by their headteacher, Mark Nugent. Asked how he could justify taking his pupils out of school and away from the curriculum, he spoke of the ‘sparkle’ in the children’s eyes at the end of the afternoon as they got on the bus and the enduring stories that they told about the day’s adventures.

Generating this ‘sparkle’ in the short-term, playing outdoors, like these children were able to at Shiremoor, creates stories to last a lifetime. Love Outdoor Play, a partnership led by Play England advocating children’s right to play outdoors, has found success on twitter, asking its followers to share their memories of outdoor play. Playing outdoors is fun, free and healthy. It has, for example, been shown to reduce symptoms in children suffering from ADHD. Moreover, all children have the right to play, enshrined in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. The importance of that right was highlighted by last month’s General Comment on play, issued by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Children playing amongst the trees at The Argory, County Armagh

Children playing amongst the trees at The Argory, County Armagh ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Adventure playgrounds like Shiremoor offer a safe outdoor space for children to play and explore freely. Forest Schools, such as that at Ashridge Estate in Kent, give children the opportunity to learn how to build dens or track wild animals through play and instruction. Initiatives like Playing Out in Bristol, set out to reclaim the streets for children to play in.

Increasingly, however, children appear disinterested in playing outdoors. A new poll commissioned for JCB Kids’ new Fresh Air campaign, launched this week, found that children today spend half the amount of time playing out as their parents did when they were children. 43% said they would rather watch television than play outside with their friends, 42% prefer to play on the computer. There is a clear link between access to natural space and physical health and mental wellbeing. Research published last week by the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health demonstrated the connection between availability of green space and reported levels of wellbeing in city dwellers.

Yet despite the many opportunities and the frequently stated health benefits, children aren’t spending as much time playing outdoors as their parents did.

Why?

Last year the National Trust published the Natural Childhood report. Written by broadcaster and naturalist Stephen Moss, it identified some of the barriers to children getting outdoors. Expanded upon in the report from the Natural Childhood Inquiry, they include: the rise of indoor entertainment (as highlighted by the JCB research), traffic dangers, lack of quality green space, constraints in the education system, socio-economic factors, and an unreasonable health and safety culture. Whilst some of these are clearly very real barriers, others perhaps owe more to imagination and media exaggeration than fact. ‘Stranger danger’ and the fear of child abduction is a prime example of this. This fear of ‘strangers’ poses a real barrier to children being allowed to play outside unsupervised. A third of adults surveyed in 2007 for Play England thought that the threat of paedophiles was a barrier to children playing out. Yet an NSPCC report published last week argued that children are at greater risk at home from sexual predators operating online, than they are playing in the park or the streets.

Some barriers to children playing outdoors are, like ‘Stranger Danger’, command lots of media attention. Not enough is made of others. Too often, for instance, the value of play is linked to learning and education. Outdoor play is valued as a medium through which to teach and the value of play for its own sake is ignored.

Building upon our Natural Childhood project, the National Trust has come together with RSPB, Play England, NHS Sustainable Development Unit, Britdoc and filmmakers Green Lions, to form a partnership, The Wild Network, aimed at addressing these barriers. We don’t just want to see more children playing outside. We want children in the UK to be able to forge a stronger connection with, and develop a closer interest in nature. To that end, this summer we’re launching a new movement to connect children and nature alongside a new feature-length documentary film, Project Wild Thing. Find out more here.

Tom is the intern on the Natural Childhood project. To find out more about the National Trust’s work to reconnect children and nature visit the Outdoor Nation blog.

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