Wednesday, March 09, 2011

GUEST POST Why I caged my son: The Love Outdoor Play campaign

Daniel Raven-Ellison lives in London and is a lead member of The Geography Collective, a partnership of geography teachers, artists, explorers and academics

Many of children’s geographies are being severely eroded. Parent-imposed cuts to their freedom to play outdoors have been well documented in the media. At the same time and in Ofsted’s own words “geography is in decline in many schools”. The combined degradation of many young people’s experiences and understanding of their place and connections to the world is a toxic and noxious combination.

At home
Having the freedom to play outdoors can improve the well-being of children and their communities. Barely a month goes by without an academic paper or newspaper reminding us that outdoor play is good for the physical and mental health of children or supports key learning about risk, creativity and communication. The idea of 'nature deficit disorder' is also finding growing support.

Despite the constant messaging in the mainstream media that many families are too worried to let their children play out, the fear of other adults, cars and mud are just too strong to give their children more freedom. This fear is a snowballing and infectious problem which eats away at the social capital in many communities.

When my son fell off his bike and cut his knee I watched from a distance as two men walked by without offering help; a reaction that distressed my then 7-year-old even further. Furthermore, in my local area there is a shortage of children walking to and playing in the park together, crucial if we are to allow him to make the journey himself.

While the decisions that lead to children being kept inside the home instead of playing out are complex, the public debate around this issue remains too simple. The way I see it, stronger geographical knowledge and understanding of local areas is needed to inform the decisions we make about children’s safety in the community.

Judgements about how much freedom children should have put too much emphasis on possible dangers instead of weighing overall benefits against risk. There is too much fear of ‘stranger danger’ and directly linked to this, not enough trust in members of the community. The last government has a lot to answer for here, not least with the CRB checks system.

Research from Play England shows several major reasons why children are not being allowed to enjoy outdoor play. In particular they identified parents’ fear of being judged by neighbours (37 per cent) and concern that their children are too noisy and may bother neighbours (55 per cent). It was this research that inspired us to start a campaign called Love Outdoor Play. The idea of the campaign is simple and is now supported by over 70 national charities, businesses and well known authors.
Love Outdoor Play Manifesto: Having the freedom to play outdoors improves the well-being of children and their communities. Together, we are building a visible community to support reasonably safe exploration, adventure and play. Wherever you see a Love Outdoor Play sticker or symbol, you’ll find people who welcome play and are looking out for young people.
This is the ‘Big Society’ at work. Every few months we organise a ‘community print run’ of stickers. This approach takes advantage of the economies of scale which exist in printing by crowd funding the run in advance. Two of these have taken place so far and in the most recent one 700 large stickers were printed and distributed. The Love Outdoor Play sticker is more than your usual sticker. It’s a symbol that shows:
  • Understanding of the importance of outdoor play for the well-being of individuals and communities
  • Communities that welcome and are creating space for outdoor play
  • Freedom and independence for young people to learn and have fun
  • Responsibility within communities to care for one another
Clearly stickers are not the only solution, but they can help to increase support for the political, economic, environmental and social steps that could be introduced to improve outdoor play, exploration and adventure. In other words, they can be used to start a conversation that could lead to more efforts like Playing Out in Bristol.

The symbol is available under a creative commons licence so anyone is allowed to use it for non-commercial use. As a direct result of this The Children’s Centre on the Isle of Man has organised with a local dairy to have the symbol printed on milk cartons. It is also being used in a major project being launched in April to map places to play in the UK. It is our hope that this symbol will become a universal symbol to welcome outdoor play.

At school
I love history. I love historians. History and geography cannot be separated and I would go so far as to say that historians are historical geographers. It does however always frustrate me that the likes of David Starkey and Simon Schama get so much airtime on Question Time and other public arenas. It’s about time other social scientists are given opportunities to offer their opinions including great geographers such Doreen Massey, Danny Dorling, Kye Askins or Joe Smith. The Conservatives have been complicit in a very public and constant support of historians, but they need to make space in public and in the curriculum for geography too.

As the chief executive of the Geographical Association David Lambert has said “without geography, the world would be a mystery to us” and that “Geography is one of humanity's big ideas. It is concerned with producing and communicating knowledge about ourselves in the world. Now that we have entered a period in which human beings can shape the Earth on a large scale – even destroy all life on it – engaging young people with knowledge about the planet they occupy has never been more vital”.

While geography is struggling in many schools the overall picture is complex and the subject needs to be supported and invested in. If young people are to grow up being able to make sense of major environmental issues, economic opportunities and the causes of conflict they need to have a working knowledge of how the world ‘fits together’. In no other subject will you find arts, sciences, literacy and numeracy, contemporary and historical, local and international themes being learned about together in perfect synergy as frequently as in geography.

Central to this geographical learning is giving children the opportunity to participate in experiential learning (actually doing things) in the real world (outside the classroom). This means making it easier for teachers to lead learning outdoors may it be in the school grounds, in their local community or travelling further afield. It also means making much better use of the time children spend on holiday, especially if during term time.

I believe children should be able to take absence of leave from school to go on family holidays, but if during school time they should be expected to complete learning projects and a new code should be created in school registers to reflect this requirement.

Children must be given more freedom to learn about their place in the world and offered the tools and support needed to make sense of it. While increased technological connectivity, availability of knowledge and more affordable travel can all create a sense of availability and awareness, if we are to have an empathetic, creative and effective community we must invest in young people’s geographies.

To support positive and creative outdoor play while learning through geography we have created Mission:Explore, a series of children’s books, a website and an iPhone app that encourage children (and families) to explore and play outdoors through asking questions about the world in which they live. We think it is positive for children to speak to and learn from people in their community and this is reflected in the project. All royalties from the first book are invested in free copies for deprived children.

Why did I lock my son up in a cage? To symbolically represent the current situation for many children in the UK. While there are amazing and safe places to play on their doorsteps, children are all but effectively caged indoors. Its time more was done to support a more ‘free-range’ childhood in which children are allowed to learn and have fun from being outdoors.

The Geography Collective, a partnership of geography teachers, artists, explorers and academics, is the creator of Mission:Explore, a series of children’s books, website and iPhone app that encourages outdoor play. It also manages the Love Outdoor Play campaign.

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