Is outdoor child’s play doomed to extinction?

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Is outdoor child’s play doomed to extinction?

Figures released by the National Trust earlier this month paint a picture of a generation of children disengaged with nature and outdoor play, largely ignorant of the joy of unbridled exploration. According to the charity, fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places compared to almost half a generation ago, a third have never climbed a tree, and one in ten can’t ride a bike. But has children’s play really changed in recent decades, and if so, how?

According to a body of commentators and parenting authors, numerous factors have altered the landscape of children’s play – from the increase in road traffic to parents’ longer working hours, from the rise of ‘stranger danger’ to the growth of new technologies. Of course, “children play in the same they always have done. It’s an innate biological thing, it’s part of who children are,” says Cath Prisk, Director of Play England. “But their freedom to play has changed over generations with being interfered with”.

According to Prisk, “what has changed is the barriers to children having their freedom to play”. Whereas previous generations might have been left to frolic outside for hours on end, returning home only to eat, nowadays for many children play is increasingly structured, and conducted under the watchful eye of parents and teachers. Nowadays “people do not think eight or nine-year-olds should be out in groups exploring and building dens,” says Prisk.

Steve Humphries, the author of a 2009 BBC television series about children’s play, notes that “up to the 1960s there were few children who didn’t spend much of their free time outdoors, playing in the fields, parks, streets, back alleys, old bombsites and local beauty spots.” But, according to the commentator, “this world of independent child’s play has today largely vanished”. For Humphries this is partly due to a rise in ‘stranger danger’. He notes that while the number of reported child molestation and abduction cases “remained extremely small”, in “parents’ minds however child abduction often appears a greater and more insidious threat. The flasher at the school gates and sexually motivated attacks on children are nothing new, but in the television age these fears have been fuelled by intense media coverage of stories of child sexual abuse, abduction and murder.” Parenting author Andrew Watson echoed this: “I think there’s the element blown up by the media that if one child gets abducted it is front page news but if 20 children get safely returned to their parents the same day nobody takes any notice”. For Prisk also, the “constant fear of the ‘stranger danger’” is a factor.

But Watson, Humphries and Prisk agree that increased road traffic and a lack of green space have also played a part. “A huge rise in car ownership and road traffic proved a big threat to children’s safety,” says Humphries. “From the late ’50s onwards traffic accidents involving children playing ball games in their street increased steadily.” Be it the threat of road traffic collisions or simply the fear your ball would hit a parked car, in many areas the rise in car ownership appears to have fundamentally changed the street as a play space. A 2009-11 report from the Universities of London, Sheffield and East London, entitled Children’s Playground Games and Songs in the New Media Age, states “the evidence seems to be that street play has declined considerably”. But, according to Prisk, many other “safe spaces… have gone” also. “Teachers do not let [children] use the playgrounds at weekends,” says Prisk, and vast numbers of brownfield sites have been built upon. The Universities’ report notes “sites for play over the last century have become increasingly urban, constrained, planned, regulated and overseen”. Watson notes there is “less access to untouched areas that we had the fortune of experiencing growing up.”

Another influential factor seems to be the increased pressure on both parents and children. Prisk notes many parents work longer hours and are forced to put their youngsters into childcare, while Watson said: “There is an increased pressure that unsupervised play isn’t constructive play, which is utterly wrong. Parents feel they have to fill every minute with everything leading towards some greater area of their [child’s] development.” He adds: “You just can’t win – if they are left unsupervised and go off and get into trouble, as children do, then parents are hounded from all angles.”

Meanwhile children are also said to be feeling the strain.  Writing for IOL, Daniella Renzon says: “Their schedules are packed by parents who want to give their children every advantage in this competitive world.” She adds: “So much is squeezed into a rushed and demanding day that they are left with little or no time for simple, unstructured play.” For Prisk, replacing free play with a packed timetable is in part misguided. She maintains that children who are free to take risks in their play time, such as climb a tree or build a den, “are ready to take risks when they are learning”, be it tackle a maths problem or read aloud to their class. She adds that a lack of unstructured, unsupervised play can leave children lacking in confidence, as they are “not given the opportunities to develop their character”.

But no analysis of child’s play would be complete without reference to new technologies. For many children, the explosion of gadgets and TV channels has made staying indoors glued to a screen more appealing than venturing into the great outdoors. “It’s nicer in your bedroom than when we were growing up,” says Prisk. “Being sent to your bedroom used to be a punishment but now they have their computers, DVD players. They have less opportunity to go outside”. But, interestingly, the Children’s Playground Games and Songs in the New Media Age report concludes new technologies have not overtaken more ‘traditional’ play. It maintains that while “children’s media cultures are richer and more diverse than at any time in the past”, physical playground activities “are alive and well, and… happily co‐exist with media‐based play”.  The authors argue: “Modern children are, then, immersed in an enveloping mediascape, which is impossible for them to ignore. However, our research indicates that playground culture and children’s games are not overwhelmed, marginalised or threatened by the quantity and plurality of available media.”

Both Prisk and Watson stress the danger of making sweeping generalisations. “I would warn against assuming we are not able to let [children] play unsupervised,” said Watson. “Many parents are still letting their children out there, they’re being left unsupervised and have a great time.” Meanwhile Prisk stressed: “Some kids are being given the freedom to play”.

But what are the consequences for those children not experiencing outdoor play? To this Prisk replies: “What happens when you’re stuck inside all day? How do you feel? Compare it to how you feel if you go outside to the park or outside to play. Kids need that joy. They need those memories on an everyday basis.”

Source: The Independent

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