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How to keep hold of children’s freedom into the winter

posted this in Childhood, Free Play, Natural Play on 10/10/2017

child by the sea with arms outstretched

It’s that time of year again when everything is just starting to close in, especially for children.

The long, light summer evenings… the freedom of the summer holidays and outdoor life, where children seem to re-find their natural age (see the end of this blog if this wasn’t your experience!); these things all start to feel a long time ago.

Strangely, the main factor isn’t actually the light or the weather. In the UK anyway, it can be sunny or rainy just about any day of the year and there are always clothes to suit – and anyway children don’t care!

Pressures on children’s freedom

Partly, it’s school and work: the dominance of the clock, the schedule and tasks to be done. Our adult lives can be like this and, increasingly, education has become this. My late 1970’s primary school experience  included lots of exploration, freedom and learning outside. But today school can be so dominated by learning objectives, targets and outcomes that even our teachers are staring out of the window and dreaming of more freedom.

And outside school, there are other massive changes since those days making freedom harder: a huge increase in traffic; a culture where we don’t feel safe or confident to let our children outside alone; and an invention -screens – which means our children can be oh so occupied indoors. Without that development in technology, I think we might have had a child-led revolution on our hands by now!

Because of all these things, children’s lives can be very indoors and restricted every day, all year round. In her brilliant book on childhood – “Kith“- the writer Jay Griffiths even draws parallels with prisoners, and this powerful campaigning advert by Persil makes the same point.
So what can we do?

How can we cling on to some of that summer holiday freedom in the winter months? Or – let’s face it – all year round?

Well, my children are older now, so here are my top seven tips for more outside freedom for children, gleaned from long experience and constant searching as they grew up in inner city Bristol:

  1. Use the time straight after school: it’s still light, children have likely just finished a long day indoors and being told what to do; and you will always find at least one other parent or child who fancies playing outside somewhere, even if just on the way home.
  2. Travel to school any way apart from by car: on foot, by scooter, bike and even bus – all these allow a journey outside, meeting others, with room for exploration and play, especially on the way home.
  3. Make full use of parks if there are any nearby – they’re full of possibilities for children’s freedom, and ironically it’s often the land outside the fenced off play area that can give this.
  4. Think about smaller patches of land and informal spaces. The smaller the children, the less you need – and in fact the easier it is for you – to grant that freedom to roam and explore. I met one friend regularly at a war memorial in a patch of bushes and our children lived through whole worlds of adventure there, and most adults remember magic happening in small spaces of scrubby land. I talk more about my version of this and the start of Playing Out with BBC Radio Nottingham here.
  5. Use the street or space outside your home to play out informally. If you’re lucky enough to have a relatively safe street like a cul de sac or a ‘close’ you can just sit outside or let it happen, according to your judgement. If not, there’s always pavement play: my street is a rat run, so I’d sit on my step while my children raced toy cars or tried to sell things to passers by (a rusty hair clip once for 2p – thank you Lady With The Red Coat). For tips on starting in small ways, see easy and effortless things.
  6. Consider starting formal playing out sessionsworking with neighbours to temporarily close the street to cars and open it up for play. It can change your street community and your child’s experience of play and freedom close to home forever!
  7. Finally, keep asking, keep constructively pushing, for more freedom for children outside. Playing Out co-founder Alice and I both did this (no doubt annoyingly!) at our children’s primary school: Why did that slight bit of rain mean no play times, no sports day? Why can’t more learning happen outside in the school grounds, or the park nearby? Can we help make any of these more possible? And it’s why I wrote my children’s story (secretly also for adults) St Cuthbert’s Wild School for Boys.

Why Freedom Outside Matters for Children

Why do these things? They take effort and also time, and we don’t have much of that.

Well, there’s plenty of research that sets out the benefits of free play  and playing outside for children. But speaking personally, I can only tell you from the heart and from experience that it is worth it. Every bit of outdoor freedom eked out for my children gave them valuable meaning, richness, learning and a growing independence – and I see the benefits of this every day now they are capable young adults.

And if the idyllic description of the summer holidays at the start of this blog did not quite match how it felt for you?

You are far from alone. I had the same for several years: holidays where I organised too much stuff, didn’t get everyone outside enough, worked for too much of it, or missed out on those long, light evenings…

But it doesn’t matter. After winter, spring and another year always comes. And with it, new chances to grab or make that freedom for children which – once found – is ultimately cheaper, easier, better and far more joyful than anything else.

Want to start playing out more? Have a look at our our How page or get in touch. We hope this blog has inspired you and if you sign up here, each month we’ll e-mail you a link to our latest ideas.  (There’s a share button in the corner – who else would like to read this?).

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