How (And Why) To Keep Kids Wild

The Wild Network

So you went camping this summer? Holidays aren’t enough to give our kids the fresh air and freedom they need to grow, says the Wild Network’s Natalie Johnson. Here, she shares 10 ways to encourage your kids to get outdoors and be wild – even through the winter.

It takes serious dedication to take the kids camping.  All that effort you put in, the packing it all in the car and then unpacking of it all again (in the rain). The daylight at 4am. The food planning. A week (or two) with no kitchen and no kitchen sink.  It’s like parenting: anyone can holiday, but only a select few can camp. The hardcore dedicated few. Parenting squared.

Yet, strangely, it seems that the family summer camping holiday has become almost as ubiquitous as the ballet classes and music lessons that it attempts to compensate for. More and more families are buying mansion-sized tents, with tent en-suites and heading to the countryside. Some choose to for financial reasons (particularly if, like us, they foolishly had too many kids) and, for others, it’s a lifestyle choice – often based on the idea of a perfect, nostalgic childhood.

Maybe you camped as a child and remember those happy days of freedom and shouts of, “Be back by 6pm!” as you disappeared through the hedgerow. Either way, families that routinely camp tend to be united in a belief that endless amounts of fresh air and nature are essential for their children’s wellbeing.

And even if you didn’t camp this summer, you can guarantee at least four sets of your friends did. And half of them probably went together. And – wow – didn’t it look great on Facebook. The kids ran wild and free, climbed trees and made dens. They picked blackberries, or other wholesome fruit, and fully recharged themselves before the new term rolled around.

But post-summer, when term time rolls around the freedom is forgotten. We return to the schedules of school, the routines, the regulations and the regimentation. What happened to those inquisitive children, hatched over the summer, steadily growing in confidence and ability? Where are those squeals of laughter from the coppiced corners of campsites? We yank our kids from freedom and return them to the strict rules of modern childhood. Then we try and squeeze their expanded minds back into the boxes of term-time.

Unfortunately, for our children, those wild summer days aren’t enough. The happy, healthy kids we desperately want to raise need fresh air and freedom – regularly, whatever the weather. Yet we are so concerned about the educational welfare of our children, the after-school clubs, certificated sports and musical grades, that we don’t realise that they are missing out on the things that develop their personalities and resilience, through childhood and into adulthood. The one essential, free and fun thing: the outdoors.

We know that kids benefit from free time, outdoors, every day. Unstructured and self-directed play isn’t just for nursery school. It enables all kids to learn about risk and reward at any age. It helps develop spatial awareness and improves coordination. The multitude of studies are numerous and well respected.

The study Ecotherapy: the green agenda for mental health funded by charity MIND in 2007, reported that 94% of mental health patients say that green exercise alleviates symptoms. It’s also been proven that kids with ADHD report improved a three-fold improvement in symptoms by just taking part in outdoor activities in nature, compared to indoor activities. Patients with a view of nature recovered faster than those without. The studies are wide-reaching and show real and broad improvements to the welfare of kids – and adults – by getting outside more.

The Wild Network encourages parents, teachers and carers to swap some screen time for Wild Time, and aims to show that it needn’t be hard work. By choosing to take a walk through the park on the way home from school, instead of driving, you will be giving your kids the headspace that they need to regulate their busy minds. If driving is the only option, a walk to look for muddy puddles, find conkers, or forage for wild berries can be done in less than 10 minutes – and needn’t be as arduous or, well, boring, as it sounds.

But don’t make life any harder for yourself: parenting is tough enough. You don’t need to compete with the camping and nature gurus. You can find everyday wildness in any city street, any country lane, even in tower blocks and wasteland.

The Wild Network Get Kids Wild

The Wild Network’s Top Ten Tips To Get Wild Time Everyday:

  1. Start small. Investing in all-new matching wellies and wax jackets and storming off to the hills is not required (although perfectly acceptable should you desire!). Take a walk down your street and look for the tiniest signs of nature. Count the weeds poking through pavement cracks, listen to the birds on telephone wires.
  2. Plan for success. Make a pledge to join our movement and swap screen time for Wild Time. Visit thewildnetwork.com and join thousands of others. You can pledge to swap time on the site. There’s also a fun voucher to give to the kids to kick-start their Wild Time challenge. Take a look around for inspiration, too.
  3. Use tech to fuel your Wild Time. Download the simple Wild Time App from iTunes or check out Wild Time ideas on The Wild Network website. From making mushy mud pies, identifying types of insect, or simply playing Pooh Sticks, there are loads of ideas, depending on whether you have 10 minutes, or many hours to spend outdoors.
  4. Trust children. Kids can learn to be outside on their own. Give them a task and a set of rules/boundaries. Send them on chores to a local shop for bread; give them a letter to post. Kids are keen to explore – it’s often our own fears that prevent us from letting them get outside.
  5. Older kids may need bribing. Children in East Asia suffer from increased myopia levels, due to indoor lifestyles and screen time4. Scientists have proven that this can be massively reduced by simply increasing kids’ time outside. So, if needs must… pocket money or Wifi passwords are a great incentive for those screen/Wild Time trade offs!
  6. Lead by example. Time and time again the kids we speak to report that they would love to play outside more with their parents. And if you’re tough enough to camp… you’ve got this hands down. Leave devices in your pocket and head outside. A 10-minute nature walk before bedtime works wonders for hyperactive little ones (and hormonal pre-teens, too).
  7. Tenacity. One rainy day of tears and tantrums does not a hermit make! Well, it could do, but don’t let it. Grab a bucket and catch raindrops and stones for washing and painting later on. Go really daring and march around the wet grass barefoot. Once you unleash their creativity they’ll love it!
  8. Be spontaneous. Nothing beats the regimented schedules of school terms than a surprise march to the park after school with a packet of treats in your pocket.
  9. Enlist friends and family. Your own childhood was forged by the path that your parents trod for you. Why reinvent the wheel, when you can roll out the pièce de résistance: Grandad and his stick sword fights. Or pals with wellies for quality muddy puddle time.
  10. Learn the Wild Time mantra. Say to yourself, frequently and convincingly, these words: Wild Time outdoors, in nature, is as important for my child(ren) as music class, sports coaching, school clubs, homework or dance. A connection to nature will reduce stress, improve their wellbeing and improve their health. I give myself permission to let them play out. I’m a good parent. I am a good parent. I am a good parent.
Natalie Johnson is a writer and community leader for The Wild Network, an organisation that exists to grow wild time for children, to help them roam free and play wild.