Go Outside and Play

In one generation, the number of children playing outdoors has halved. According to a survey by Natural England, less than a quarter (24%) of children visit a local greenspace on a weekly basis. The report goes on to say that this figure has dropped from 53% for their parent’s generation. Fewer than ten percent of children in the UK regularly play in woodlands, countryside and parks.

81% of children said they would like to play outdoors more, and while 85% of parents said they would like their children to go outside and play, fears over traffic safety and ‘stranger danger’ prevented them allowing their children to explore their environment unsupervised.

The benefits of being out in the environment are many and varied. The cardio-vascular benefits of simply getting off the couch and moving around, and the benefits to your eyesight of looking at things that are further away than a computer screen are a no-brainer. There are other benefits too. From the groundbreaking research view through a window may influence recovery from surgery (Science 27 April 1984) by Roger Ulrich to recent studies of stress and anxiety levels of people who exercise in parks by Jules Pretty and his team at Essex University there is a weight of evidence that contact with the natural environment improves physical and mental health.

Less is made of the social benefits of unstructured outdoor activities but these should also be flagged up here. Creativity, decision-making, co-operation, and the ability to assess risk are all important skills that are learned through spending time outdoors engaging with the environment. The fact that the world is considerably more random, varied, slow, muddy, uncontrollable, cold and painful than the virtual one of the computer or X-Box is something that some children now struggle with and the results are impatience with the real world and real people, and intolerance of any viewpoint that is not their own. How these attitudes will carry through into adulthood is anyone's guess.

So, on one hand we have concerns over traffic and strangers, and on the other we have parents who are failing to socialise their children, and are putting their children at risk of health issues such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, hyperactivity, depression and anxiety. This is a similar “danger of safety” issue to that discussed in this paper on the detrimental health effects of compulsory cycle helmet use in Australia. The requirement to wear a helmet is enough to put many children off cycling, encouraging them to spend more time in front of the television, eating chips, getting fat and winding up with the sort of health conditions you would expect from such a lifestyle.

In The Ecology of Everyday Life, Chaia Heller talks of the courtly love of the medieval age of chivalry and the parallels with the ecology movement’s attitude to ‘Mother Earth’. In courtly love the knight woos the maiden, treasuring her most (to him) important quality of chastity. The ultimate expression of his love is to lock the object of his affections in a high tower away from everyone, including his own base desires. In this type of love, we imprison what we love and rob it of its freedom and its potential for self-direction.

In the UK and the US, society’s view of children has changed over the last fifty years. In the same way that the medieval knights viewed women as the embodiment of all that was pure, good and innocent, so our society views children. By idolising children as precious, delicate objects to be cosseted and treasured we rob them of their freedom just as surely as if we had locked them in a tower. The protector becomes jailer.

If we love our children, it seems we have to be prepared for them to hurt themselves. We have to be prepared to knowingly allow them access to situations where they are at risk. How great a risk is something that we can control to a degree, so as parents we need to spend time checking the path ahead, being out there with our children, or at least near them, and be ready if something doesn't go as planned. It's a tough call.

And one that many are not willing to make. Unfortunately it seems that our “cotton-wool kids” are heading for a not-too-healthy adult life. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century concludes that the rise in obesity may mean that the next generation are the first to have a shorter life expectancy than the previous generation in over 200 years.

In these days of climate change and environmental concerns, it is not only for health reasons that we need to encourage our children to spend unsupervised free time in the natural environment. Only through direct experience will children understand the environment and relate to it. Direct experience - experience through the senses - promotes an emotional relationship with nature that no amount of Discovery Channel documentaries can foster. If we want the next generation to live in a way that is more sustainable we should ensure that they understand that the environment is not simply something to entertain them on Wednesday evening television. That sanctimonious line about “borrowing the earth from our children” means precious little if our children don’t want it back.

All is not lost however, and there is a growing movement to combat this trend. On June 1st this year Michelle Obama unveiled the extension to the Let’s Move! campaign to halt childhood obesity in the United States with the Let’s Move Outside! campaign which “gives parents the tools they need to get their families moving outdoors. By linking parents to nearby parks, trails and waters – and providing tips and ideas – Let’s Move Outside! will help families become healthier and develop a more active lifestyle.” The main drive might be health-related, but the campaign will also raise environmental awareness.

In the UK Natural England’s One Million Children Outdoors programme aims to increase the numbers of visits to farm and Nature Reserves, to encourage an interest in gardening and wildlife, and to support projects like Let Nature Feed Your Senses.

Poul Christensen, acting chair for Natural England, stated: “The natural environment is there to be explored by children, it is their right. The memories they collect from it stay with them as adults and inspire them to pass on a healthy environment for future generations".

See also:

Lottery fundedNatural England


SNAP (Sensory Nature, Adventure and Play) - bringing nature into the lives of children with disabilities and their families.

Benefits of contact with nature for everyone? - article outlining barriers that prevent some groups accessing the benefits

Sensory learning and our environment - article about how we learn through all our senses and implications for connecting with our environment

Let Nature Feed Your Senses