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 daily basis.

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 safety standards.

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 spaces.

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.

What you can do
  • Parents as well as policy-makers have a part to play in giving their children the chance to enjoy nature.
  • 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 other families.
  • 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 ever before.
  • 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 foot.
  • "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



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