Javed Khan, CEO of the UK’s largest children’s charity Barnardo’s, shares his experience and perspective on outdoor play, and why it’s more vital than ever for parents to embrace it.
Summer of nostalgia
“Summer holidays.” Some people think those are the two best words in the English language. If you’re middle aged like me, you probably look back nostalgically at your childhood summers as ones involving heatwaves and days at the seaside, building dens in the woods, and staying out late with friends.
Of course what I don’t remember so well are the rainy days sitting indoors in my Birmingham home, with nothing worth watching on the (only) two television channels!
We tend to focus on the times when we enjoyed the freedom of being with friends and family in the great outdoors – whether it’s cricket in the park or football in the streets. Back then challenging ourselves and taking risks was a natural part of growing up, and helped shape us into the people we are today. We were lucky to experience the joy of playing outside.
The increasing science behind outdoor play benefits
As parents, we must allow our children to have those stimulating outdoor experiences that are so important to their physical and social development. New analysis by the University of Bristol published recently showed that when roads were temporarily closed so that children could play outside, it not only improved their health but also the community spirit. Parents noticed an improvement in cycling skills, road safety awareness, stronger community bonds and greater overall happiness.
Clearly, playing outdoors comes with an element of risk. But that is part of the fun and why it is so important to children’s development.
Jumping streams, climbing trees, swinging on branches, all give children confidence, a sense of achievement and builds resilience, whilst the trophy cuts, bumps and bruises are painful reminders of lessons learnt. Success and failure provide children with the motivation to try again and work out different ways of doing things. Movements that are often associated with risky play are also essential for motor skills, balance, coordination and body awareness.
Outdoor play and mental health
There is a growing body of evidence that nature-based activities help people with mental ill-health and can reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. A study by the University of Essex found just five minutes “green exercise” can produce rapid improvements in mental wellbeing and self-esteem, with the greatest benefits experienced by the young.
The opposite can be said of mainly indoor based activities such as spending hours online chatting to friends, or worse…strangers.
Indeed, while parents worry about ‘stranger danger’, they often fail to realise two things: their children can be more at risk from online grooming and sexting, and that according to one children’s charity they are actually 90 per cent more likely to be abducted by someone they know than a stranger.
Barnardo’s role – Javed Khan
At Barnardo’s we understand not all children have the best start in life, or the idyllic memories we cherish so much. That’s why we work tirelessly to give thousands of the UK’s most vulnerable children and young people the support, life skills, and training they need to get them back on the path to brighter futures. With this they too can have the rewarding experiences that they will look back on with fondness.
One of our campaign slogans is ‘Believe in Me.’ At Barnardo’s we believe that with the right support, children can overcome the impact of a tough start in life.
We must remember to trust in children, to allow those most precious to us take the occasional risk, make the most of our beautiful natural surroundings and build some wonderful memories outdoors that will help shape their futures.