Nature’s Playground – There for the Taking
By Euan Hall, Chief Executive, the Land Trust
It is a sad fact that many children are no longer allowed to play outside on the street or in nearby fields the way we did when we were younger. There is both a growing perception that children are only safe indoors and an increasing culture of fear and litigation. However, children who are only kept in very ‘secure’ places are not ones who can solve problems for themselves or take responsibility. However more worryingly , the growing number of children who are denied the chance to play outside in the fresh air face a knock-on effect to their health. We have a responsibility to create an environment for them that is ‘safe’ and even though it might be ‘engineered’, they are still rewarded with the same vital benefits. At the Land Trust we are endeavouring to raise awareness of natural play and the fantastic rewards that both children and their families can reap.
In an increasingly technological age, children are more likely to spend their time sitting in front of a TV or computer than outside climbing trees, rolling down hills, making daisy chains or mud pies. The government has stated that play deprivation is as damaging as junk food for children1 , and one in 10 children and young people are diagnosed with a mental health disorder2 due to the lack of outdoor play. Children are increasingly struggling to relate to the environment, which has a direct effect on their health and development. Those who succumb to the indoor recreation lifestyle are more likely to become obese and to have a low concentration span in the classroom which can lead to ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and higher stress levels. This is aside from physical effects due to the lack of fitness and low levels of vitamin D, which leads to brittle bones and susceptibility to illness.
We believe playing outside allows children to thrive and learn in a less structured and accessible environment. There are free outdoor play schemes up and down the country catering for all age groups, and the Land Trust offers activities such as mini beast hunts, bat walks, bushcraft events and den-building workshops in addition to more general health-orientated play. We also believe in the community getting involved in their local spaces, and providing natural play in people’s everyday lives is a great way to do this. Outdoor activities allow young children to learn about the world and gain essential life skills. Children who embrace the great outdoors are rewarded with improvements to their ability to recall information, creative problem-solving skills and a boost to their creativity in general. Our experience working with educational units such as the Old Hall Centre in Doncaster shows us that children who struggle in the classroom often show enthusiasm and great attitude and are model pupils when outdoors – behaviour then gets transferred back to theclassroom.
The great outdoors can also play a part in eliminating the common problem of anti-social behaviour. As part of the Forest Schools programme our Community Rangers work hard to help feed children back into mainstream education after they have been excluded or suspended due to anti-social behaviour. The hands-on, practical conservation skills based approach is designed to teach anger management, self control and teambuilding expertise. The sessions are expertly presented to the students as a means of learning survival techniques, but the Rangers are able to efficiently engage with the youngsters and create an understanding of what the woodland can offer them, as well as the right way to treat it and how they can best use its facilities. As a result anti social behaviour on site has dropped considerably.
Childhood is the starting block for the future and it would be a great shame to deprive children from the countless benefits of outside play. Outdoor activities for children play a vital role in the development of healthy minds and bodies, and it sets the mark for the rest of their lives.
The vital factor in all of this is the availability of safe, usable and stimulating open spaces. Without these there’s simply no opportunity for free and accessible play. Therefore it’s important that more is done by all those responsible for planning our towns and cities ensure that people – both old and young – have access to quality and safe open spaces. These spaces need to be at the heart of the community so they can be used by everyone. Even in urban developments, steps should be taken to maintain and care for open spaces. Money invested in the upkeep of such areas is well spent, as it encourages people to lead healthier lifestyles and cuts the risk of heart disease, obesity and mental health problems – so saves the government more in the long run. Only this month a Defra report quantified that open space were worth £30 Billion pounds a year in health and wellbeing benefits …. now that’s a figure that will make even the politicians sit up and take notice!
1 BBC News, ‘No outdoor play ‘hurts’ children’, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6986544.stm.
2 Dr. William Bird (2007): Natural Thinking. A report for the RSPB investigating the links between the Natural Environment, Biodiversity and Mental Health.
For more about the Land Trust visit their website: http://www.thelandtrust.org.uk