Parenting journalist and author of ‘New Old-Fashioned Parenting’ Liat Hughes Joshi shares her tips on how and why we should encourage children to enjoy the old-fashioned freedoms we experienced growing up.
"Half of seven to 12-year-olds play outside for less than an hour a day"
Ask the current crop of parents how their childhoods differed from those of their own kids and the chances are, somewhere pretty early on in the conversation, freedom, independence and time spent outdoors will get a mention.
Whereas our own generation tended to ‘play out’, often with minimal adult supervision, today’s offspring are more likely to spend days rushing between a whirl of extra-curricular activities, after school and holiday clubs – their time largely organised for them by grown-ups. When they’re back home, all too often, they’re cooped up indoors and our older ones are toiling away over homework.
Indeed a recent study by the National Trust showed that more than half of seven to 12-year-olds play outside for less than an hour a day, whereas their parents and grandparents did so for over two and three hours daily respectively.
"It’s a myth that our kids have become a cynical, screen-bound bunch"
The especially sad thing about this is that most contemporary kids – for all their Minecraft and messaging obsessions - would actually relish being given old-fashioned freedoms and extra time enjoying the great outdoors. A survey of more than a thousand children, carried out for the Eureka Children’s Museum in Yorkshire, found that over 80% preferred to play outside than watch TV and almost 70% favoured ‘free play’ without structure and guidance. It seems then, that it’s a myth that our kids have become such a cynical, screen-bound bunch that running about in a field no longer cuts it. They just need to be given the chance to do it more.
Various academic research projects have also demonstrated that there are huge upsides to playing outside, from improved behaviour and lower obesity rates, to enhanced language and social skills.
Children enjoy running free and it’s beneficial for them, so it’s a no-brainer to open that back door and get on with it. But the problem is that all this is easier said than achieved, given many of us inhabit a modern world that’s full of busy roads and often lack the community feel we grew up with – where the old lady or the shopkeeper from down the road would give you a telling off, as well as help if you grazed your knees falling over; a modern world where we have our fears of what might happen to our children stoked up by 24 hour rolling news coverage.
Yet all is not lost. Even if we don’t always feel comfortable allowing our families the freedom to roam the streets where we live, there are still ways to build a love of nature, let them off the leash and encourage some independence. We just need to try a little harder to find the opportunities. It might be joining Cubs or Scouts – both of which usually take urban ‘packs’ out of town and into the wilds. It could be going on a holiday or day trip somewhere away from the traffic and noise of city life. Sometimes it could just be as simple as letting them have a shade more freedom closer to home after all – to explore the park with you that bit further away perhaps.
Wherever it happens, it’s clear that even this most connected of generations seems to thrive and come alive once they’re unplugged and out there, just as kids always have.
How to get kids outside, running free:
• If you feel like your own area isn’t suited to leaving your children to explore or play, look for other opportunities for them to do so - occasionally is better than never. What about at the grandparents’? When visiting other relatives or on holiday?
• Try not to fret about bad weather – as my granny used to say ‘a bit of rain never hurt anyone’. A set of decent waterproofs and some wellies will keep them dry but even without there’s little harm in getting a bit soggy now and then.
• Likewise, stop any worrying about clothes getting ruined. Some mud and muck should be part of what being a kid is about and hey, chances are there is hot running water for a bath or shower back at ‘base camp’.
• With this in mind, ensure each child always has at least one ‘not for best’ set of clothes that can get trashed without it being the end of the world. You might even need to overtly tell more cautious offspring that they won’t be in trouble if they get a bit grubby out there.
"Use the internet to boost enthusiasm and interest in nature”
• Let your children explore their way and pursue what they’re interested in. Give them space to discover that they love jumping between fallen tree trunks or in muddy puddles. Allow them the space to collect daisies, interesting stones or leaves. Make time to avoid the ‘helicopter parenting’ and scheduling that’s becoming inherent to modern family life.
• Use the internet in positive ways if it boosts enthusiasm and interest in nature. Use it to check what type of deer you saw in the woods, work out which constellation is which with stargazing guides or whether that cloud formation was cirrus or cumulonimbus.
• Don’t be afraid to take a step back and leave them to it in a fairly safe environment. Note the use of the word ‘fairly’ as nowhere is totally free from dangers. Encountering the odd knock and fall is part of growing up and helps children learn about sensible risk taking. Let them run on ahead if there are no roads in the area for example.
• We all want to keep our children out of harm’s way but watch out for any parental over-protectiveness stifling their confidence and exploration too much. Leave them to climb that tree and learn how far to go with minimal guidance – challenge yourself to let go a little if you tend to err towards overly-close supervision.
About the author: Liat Hughes Joshi is a London-based parenting journalist and author. She has written for a range of national newspapers, magazines and websites, including The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Huffington Post and Mother and Baby Magazine. Liat is the author of New Old-fashioned Parenting and How to Unplug Your Child, both published by Summersdale in 2015, as well as Raising Children: The Primary Years (Pearson/ Prentice Hall).