Children and the great outdoors with Herefordshire Nature Trust

PUBLISHED: 09:14 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 17:21 20 February 2013

Children and the great outdoors with Herefordshire Nature Trust

Children and the great outdoors with Herefordshire Nature Trust

says Joanna Dainty, Senior Nature Play Ranger Project Officer with Herefordshire Nature Trust

Let the children play

says Joanna Dainty, Senior Nature Play Ranger Project Officer with Herefordshire Nature Trust

If I think about my childhood I cant help but smile as the play memories come flooding back digging rabbit warrens in my garden, climbing on straw bales, making dens in my friends hay barn, splashing about in the ford and stream pretending to be a troll under the bridge and biking up to the haunted house on the edge of the village. All this play was free, unsupervised, decided by myself and my friends. We explored, we used our imaginations and went into our own little worlds. We scared ourselves, fell out of trees, learned how the world works, got filthy. We did what we liked without hurting anyone and without fear of anyone hurting us.

All children are driven to play, it is human instinct. Decades of research have shown that play is crucial to physical, intellectual and socio-emotional development at all ages. It is now seen as important as other basic human needs like sleep, rest and food. Playing is something that we should all strive to support.

The best play is always outdoors, where getting dirty and making a mess no longer matters. When children are outside they become more animated and are instinctively drawn to the butterflies flitting about, the brightly coloured flowers, to see how high they can climb in the trees, or to find out how deep the water is. The other benefit of course is that there are no adults looking over your shoulder, checking you are ok, telling you how something could be done better and, basically, interrupting your game!

Playday 2006, a national interactive survey on outdoor play discovered that 80 per cent of children preferred playing outside but not all of them have the chance. This is echoed in requests we get within Herefordshire where children and young people regularly ask for risky and challenging play in woodlands and waterways. One survey showed that although 68 per cent of parents most valuable childhood memories were playing freely outdoors, the majority of todays children are kept indoors. The consequences of our fast track society prevent the walk to school for many children, This cuts down on time children spend socialisingand they are missing out on developing skills such as crossing the road, learning to look where they are walking, not to mention the invaluable exercise. There were more than one million obese children under 16 living in the UK in 2005, a third of the total in Europe. Depression in children is now commonly treated by doctors and this is attributed to the pressures on children and the lack of free play time, especially outdoors.
Herefordshires Play Strategy found children want to play outdoors more. Children identified adult presence (aka Play Rangers) in public spaces as a way of achieving that goal. In 2002 Herefordshire Nature Trust responded and set up WildPlay, delivering outdoor, outreach play opportunities for children and young people.

Over the past two years alone, WildPlay has delivered 868 play sessions and attracted more than 6,000 children. It is clear to see the difference this approach is making. Children are using parks more often and have made new friends. Parents are talking to each other at our regular sessions and starting to see the importance of free play outdoors and how much their children enjoy interacting with their natural environment. The opportunities we give them help to develop their knowledge and understanding of the world through exploration. By taking children to a local river or stream we can show there are all sorts of tiny creatures living in the water near their homes: that there is a whole different world to see and understand and then we can start to explain the importance of keeping the environment clear of rubbish and not polluting the water with chemicals. We build temporary natural bridges and dams to see what will happen to the water; we use loose parts to build mini boats and rafts and we enjoy the feeling of walking barefoot in a stream.

Hopefully, by offering outdoor play we will spark a keen interest in children to become the next wildlife enthusiasts.

As adults we are role models for the children in our lives. Lets shut off the television and computer and take our children on an outdoor adventure. Even in the most built-up areas there are fantastic places to play and explore. Go on, explore the wonderful county we live in, remember your own childhood play experiences and pass these on to the next generation!

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