Parental paranoia and busy roads have confined an
entire generation indoors. But a new approach is reintroducing children
to the sorts of muddy, risky games they thrive on
How to let your children run free
Take a few seconds to remember your favourite place to
play as a child. Where was that special place? What did it look like?
How did it smell? Here are some predictions. It was out of doors. It was
away from adults. And it was a "wild" place - not truly wild perhaps,
but unkempt, dirty, and quite possibly a bit dangerous.
It seems that, given the chance, children love nothing
more than a secret hideaway they can make their own: usually a spot just
out of earshot of a shouting parent. And parents, too, say that they
want their children to be able to play outside more. Yet children are
disappearing from the outdoors at a rate that would make them top of any
conservationist's list of endangered species.
With childhood obesity on the increase, the physical
benefits of outdoor play are obvious. What's more remarkable is the
growing evidence that children's mental health and emotional well-being
is enhanced by contact with the outdoors, and that the restorative
effect appears to be strongest in natural settings.
The great thing about many natural places is that they
are ideal environments for children to explore, giving the chance to
expand horizons and build confidence while learning about and managing
risks. These places are unpredictable, ever-changing, and prone to the
randomness of nature. But, far from being a problem, the uncertainty is
part of what attracts us to them in the first place. Indeed, in
evolutionary terms, it is the unsurpassed ability of Homo sapiens to
adjust to changes in its habitat that has, for better or worse, led us
to be the dominant species on the planet.
A bit of danger and uncertainty is good for you.
Bringing it back to children's play, the Danish landscape architect
Helle Nebelong - the creator of some wonderful natural public spaces in
Copenhagen - puts it like this: " I am convinced that standardised
play-equipment is dangerous. When the distance between all the rungs on
the climbing net or the ladder is exactly the same, the child has no
need to concentrate on where he puts his feet. This lesson cannot be
carried over into all the asymmetrical forms with which one is
confronted throughout life."
But there's more to outdoor play than learning and
health. Den-building, bug-hunting and pond-dipping make visible the
intensity of children's relationships with nature. These primal
activities not only show how closely attuned are our senses to the
workings of the natural world, but also speak to a deeper spiritual bond
with landscapes and living things that leaves impoverished those who,
whether by choice or compulsion, lead their lives indoors.
The root causes of the dramatic loss of children's
freedoms lie in changes to the very fabric of their lives over the last
30 years or so. A growth in road traffic, poor town planning and shifts
in the make-up and daily rhythms of families have left children with
fewer outdoor places to go. These changes coincided with - some would
say fed into - the growth of what the sociologist Frank Furedi calls the
"culture of fear": a generalised anxiety about all manner of threats
that found fertile ground in turn-of-the-Millennium families, even
though children are statistically safer from harm now than ever.
How can we set our children free again? My action plan
for outdoor play would start with the spaces and places children find
themselves in every day: playgrounds, parks, schools and streets. If
what best feeds children's bodies, minds and spirits is frequent,
playful engagement with nature, we need to go with the grain of their
play-instincts and put our efforts into creating neighbourhood spaces
where they can get down and dirty in natural, outdoor settings on a
That's exactly what the authorities are doing in
Freiburg, a German city on the edge of the Black Forest with strong
green credentials. For more than a decade Freiburg's parks department
has stopped installing the sterile playgrounds with tubular steel,
primary-coloured plastic and expensive rubber surfacing, and instead has
been creating "nature playgrounds" that are a bit more, well, earthy.
The resulting landscapes are diverse spaces with mounds, ditches, logs,
fallen trees, boulders, bushes, wild flowers and dirt. They are just
like the wild spaces of our childhood memories, yet they meet European
As Freiburg's existing public play-areas wear out, the
parks department works with local children and adults to create these
new-style nature playgrounds. More than 40 have been built so far, and
they are designed with a lifetime in mind. Trees, bushes and flowering
plants are carefully chosen to create playful nooks and crannies, to
attract insects and birds, and to mature and spread.
The construction methods of Freiburg's nature
play-areas are a model of sustainability compared to the processes and
carbon emissions that go into building conventional playgrounds. They
are also, typically, half the cost of a conventional fixed equipment
play-area of the same size. The approach was introduced after research
by the city's university showed that simply having good green space near
children's homes encouraged them out of doors and away from the
television. Even here in the UK, what might be called a movement for
real play is beginning to spread. In Newcastle, residents involved in
improving Exhibition Park organised a "den day" to introduce children to
the joys of shelter building. Asked what they thought about the day, one
boy said: "I love this, getting really filthy-dirty!" while a girl
responded: "If I could rewind back to this day every day I would. This
is a mint day!" In Scotland, Stirling Council has been inspired by Helle
Nebelong to create natural play-spaces across the authority. While one
site was still being built, children started wrestling in the mud
created by the construction works, and their mums persuaded the council
to keep the muddy areas for good.
In the South-West of England, Wild About Play, an
environmental play project, is supporting hundreds of play-workers and
environmental educators by sharing playful ideas for outdoor activities.
Children have told the project that what they most want to do in the
great outdoors is to make fires and cook on them, and to collect and eat
wild foods. Another environmental project, Greenstart, aims to show the
benefits of contact with green spaces for younger children by running
activity programmes in local outdoor spaces in Northumberland. One
five-year-old boy involved in a family tree planting event said: "I
can't wait to go back and see my tree." In Cambridge, Bath and Haringey,
that near-extinct species, the park keeper, is appearing in a new guise.
Called "play rangers", they are trained and run playful activities at
set times, helping to build usage, and, ultimately, ownership of these
Forest schools - where teachers regularly spend whole
days in the woods with their classes - are starting up in many woodland
areas, supported nationally by an alliance of conservation charities,
the Timber Trade Federation and the Forestry Commission. The charity
Learning Through Landscapes is helping schools across the country to
create some fine natural playgrounds.
Exciting outdoor environments are all very well, but
children have to be able to get to them. Many communities are crying out
for safer streets with lower speed-limits and less traffic. A growing
alliance of environmental, road safety, and children's agencies has
signed up to "20's plenty" , the call for a standard speed limit of 20
mph in residential areas. Some communities have gone even further and
worked with local councils to create " home zones": people-friendly
streets, based on continental designs, where the street-space is
transformed from a car corridor to a shared space in which people can
meet, children can play and the driver is a guest.
Having been part of the original campaign to introduce
home-zones to the UK a decade ago, I recently surveyed some 40 schemes
to assess their impact. More than half reported more children walking,
cycling and playing in the street. Intriguingly, some schemes have also
seen falling crime-rates and rising levels of community activity in the
form of litter collections, festivals and street parties.
We parents also have the power to resist the
seductions of consumerism and play our part in restoring to children
some of the freedoms we took for granted when we were young. We can say
"no" a little more, switch off the screens and direct our children's
curious eyes to some altogether more expansive vistas.
you can do
- Parents as well as policy-makers have a
part to play in giving their children the chance to enjoy
- There's safety in numbers. The more we
and our children get out and use streets, parks and public
spaces, the safer everyone will be.
- Get out with your children. Let them see
you enjoying the outdoors. Join together for outings with
- Let children roam together. Remember your
own childhood and the enjoyment of getting dirty, and
playing without adult supervision.
- Try to resist media scare-mongering.
Fewer than one child in a million is killed by "stranger
danger" each year, and today's children are more secure than
- Children learn to be safe through
experience. Give them a chance to know their physical limits
through tree-climbing and other outdoor play. Help them
develop road-sense by travelling as much as possible by
- "Battery-reared" children will lack
confidence as they grow up. Researchers have found a link
between children who become victims of bullying and the
protectiveness of their parents.
Tim Gill 3 October 2005