Encouraging children to be wild about nature

David Bond with his son Albie for Project Wild Thing. Picture: PA.
David Bond with his son Albie for Project Wild Thing. Picture: PA.
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A campaign to get kids back to nature for half an hour a day has won backing from a childcare expert in Sheffield.

Professor Perry Else, course leader for children and playwork at Hallam University’s Institute of Education, has backed the newly-formed Wild Network, which wants youngsters to swap their TV and computer screens and games consoles for time playing outdoors.

The campaign was launched by film-maker David Bond who, in a bid to get his young daughter and son off the sofa and outdoors, appointed himself ‘Marketing Director for Nature’. His new documentary film, Project Wild Thing, on release in cinemas, shows how he went about it.

The film has had a private showing in Sheffield for city-based children’s play equipment firm Timberplay, who are also backing the campaign. Managing director Paul Collings said: “Our play spaces attempt to capture the rich play value the natural world provides – but they are no real substitute for the wealth of rich activities a woodland, beach or riverbank naturally offer.”

Prof Else believes that the main problem is traffic. He said: “I grew up in Darnall and used to play on the street. I moved to Handsworth at seven and there was a bit of a green. I was drawn to it like a magnet.

“People are worried about dangers in the environment, although everybody knows they’re no worse than 10 years ago. People are more media savvy now and there’s more media awareness.

“People say, ‘of course, play is good, I want my kids to go out’. They know that playing out is good for kids and research says that 75 per cent of kids would like to play out more. When they get out, they really enjoy it and forget about technology.”

Prof Else gave the example of one boy who had been playing outside for two hours and realised he hadn’t missed his computer and it didn’t matter. “There was so much stimulation and he was having so much fun that he didn’t need the computer.”

He pointed out that a lot of play areas have been provided over the last 30 years but now adventure playgrounds and children’s centres in cities like Sheffield are being threatened by budget cuts.

He added: “A lot of what we do at Hallam includes outdoor play sessions that the students just love. They say that even when the weather was bad, time flew.

“Sometimes it’s just a case of reminding people that the garden is just outside the door. I used to work at Sheffield City Council and we were only reaching 15 per cent of people through organised provision.

“Different parts of Sheffield have different experiences. In the north and east of the city, kids are still playing in the street.

“Then there’s ‘4x4 families’ where kids are in cars on the way to school, then on to after-school clubs and sports clubs.

“But you have to follow individual kids and see what their experiences are. My kids have a computer – it’s a wonderful thing, but there’s got to be a balance.”

He said that outdoor play has long-term benefits for children: “If you pick up a good habit when you’re young, you’re more likely to keep it through life.

“Kids enjoy being out, it makes them happy.

“The more they do it, the more it stimulates them and the more their brain and body works.

“It’s meeting our children’s needs, rather than obsessing about how safe they are.”

Research has found only 10% of kids play in woodlands and countryside, compared to 40% a generation ago.

The Wild Network has been formed of more than 370 organisations including the National Trust, RSPB, the Scouts Association and the Woodland Trust.

They say that if children under 12 swap 30 minutes of screen time for an extra half an hour of wild time – even just out in the back garden – that could decrease their time in front of screens by 10%. the pay-off would be an increase in physical activity, alertness and wellbeing.

Chairman Andy Simpson says that autumn is “absolutely the best time” to get out into nature with the kids, splashing in puddles in their wellies, kicking through leaves and blackberry picking.

“The tragic truth is that kids have lost touch with nature and the outdoors in just one generation,” he says.

“Time spent outdoors is down, roaming ranges have fallen drastically, activity levels are declining and the ability to identify common species has been lost.

“We want parents to see what this magical wonder product does for their kids’ development, independence and creativity, by giving wild time a go.”

Being in the wild doesn’t mean kids have to abandon their technology all together, though – a new Wild Time app is available to give time-pressed families a list of ideas. “Sometimes people think nature is a package, that you go somewhere and it’s organised and you pay for it,” says Simpson.

“The Wild Network is about doing something outside your own front door, it’s not about travelling two hours in a car to experience nature.

“We seem to have lost the habit of it, which is a shame because it’s so much fun, with no price tag.”

For more information about the Wild Network, Project Wild Thing and the Wild Time app, visit www. projectwildthing.com