What is freedom to roam in nature, and why should we pay for it?

Article topic: 
Project Wild Thing

Project Wild Thing, the film by David Bond, speaks to widely held (and commonly accepted) societal fears that children’s and young people’s opportunities to roam freely and independently in ‘the outdoors’ have curtailed considerably in the late 20th and 21st centuries. The film begins with David’s family and his concern for the welfare of his own children, but quickly expands outwards to consider the nature of childhood across the UK in both urban and rural settings and how adult perceptions of risk, media influence, and the predominance of ‘screen time’ in young people’s lives have driven young people indoors and kept them there.

Throughout the film it is perhaps not as clear as it could be why this matters. Other than a short cartoon which summarise the evidence for why the outdoors is ‘good’ for people in the sense of health and wellbeing, I couldn’t help but feel that David’s sentiments were just that, a sentimental or romantic vision of childhood, translated as many things are into ‘modern crisis’, which perhaps was not as well grounded in reality as it might first appear. Of course, there is considerable evidence that regular play, learning and exercise outdoors is an important process in child development (Cumbo and Kanstrup 2014; Jones 1999; Linzmayer and Halpenny 2014), and that poorer physical health is closely linked to declining opportunities for young people to play and exercise outdoors (Cooper et al. 2010; Mũnoz 2009). Yet narratives around children’s lack of freedom to roam in nature have been dated by some researchers to the beginnings of industrialisation and urbanisation in the 19th century (Mergen 2003; Vanderbeck and Dunkley 2003), where moral panics ensued around children moving to both urban areas and working in industrial settings, far from the romantic ideal of the child roaming freely in the benign British countryside. During the twentieth century, there were concurrent moral panics around children’s access to the outdoors, panics which underpinned the creation of the Scout and Woodcraft movements in the early 20th Century (Mills 2013; 2014), whilst the 1944 Education Act in the UK encouraged outdoor education in schools because of what was perceived to be the moral virtues of getting away from the city and out into the countryside.

Later, from the middle of the 20th century, it was the television which was professed to be drawing young people indoors, whilst increased car traffic and heightened perceptions of ‘stranger danger’ were both driving them away from outdoor play and in parallel heightening parent’s perceptions of risk (Staley 2011; Vasalou et al. 2012). Now, as Project Wild Thing visually documents, these same fears remain, but are accompanied with worries around the lure of the diverse devices that offer ‘screen time’, the seemingly unlimited possibilities of the internet, alongside even more media coverage of child abduction. The point is that this may not be a ‘modern crisis’ at all, but rather an continuation of social anxieties over the nature of childhood and how it has changed over the last two hundred years.

The word crisis suggests something immediate and short-lived in timescale, and fairly obviously something quite negative, yet in the same time period (the last 200 years) there have been many positive changes to the nature of childhood. Children and young people have been largely freed, in the UK, from agricultural and industrial labour, such that they now considerably more free to pursue education, leisure activities and their own curiosity in a way that young people across the developing world simply are not able to do (Smith and Philips 2016). This in itself is a considerable privilege, but it has equally been accompanied by ever greater mobility for children and their families, such that for many they now have experience of roaming across the UK and overseas either on holiday, as part of educational visits, and to visit relatives or family friends. In the same time period education and leisure activities (such as sports) has become largely open and accessible to almost all children. In the last 200 years a range of state-based and independent bodies have established and maintained national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, city parks, a network of footpaths, and a range of organisations aimed at working with children outdoors (such as the scouts, mentioned earlier, or the Forest Schools programme, for example). We now have the ‘Right to Roam’ across the UK, entitling the public to access wide areas of land (The Ramblers Association 2015).

My aim with this argument is not to undermine the genuine concerns of David and many others like him who perceive a dramatic decline in children’s freedom to roam in the outdoors. Simply because these concerns can be better historically situated does not mean that they are not valid. However what this kind of framing allows us to do is think carefully about what we mean when we talk about roaming, freedom, exercise, the outdoors, nature and the wild. In many respects, whilst Project Wild Thing does an excellent job of visually demonstrating many of the ways in which contemporary children both do (and don’t) experience all of these things, the film also conflates them without offering some distinctions which may be quite important to these debates, as well as to parent’s who have concerns about allowing their children to ‘roam freely’. As Project Wild Thing morphs from David’s familial anxieties to a fully-fledged marketing campaign about ‘getting children outdoors’, it becomes less and less clear what ‘getting outdoors’ means, what about it is ‘good’, and, perhaps more importantly, what different forms of ‘getting outdoors’ are good for.

In one scene David goes back to the street where he grew up. I don’t know the area, but it looks like a housing project which might have been built any time from the 1930s onwards – possibly a cul-de-sac with semi-detached houses and relatively quiet roads. There are kids still playing on the streets (although the children complain that they are sometimes ‘told off’ by adults), but David compares this to where he lives now, ‘somewhere in London’. The streets outside his house are busy, too busy for him to allow his children to roam freely outside during their free time in the way that he used to as a child. This little narrative holds within it a truth: that road traffic has increased over the last 50 years (Karsten 2005), that roads and streets are now much busier such that young people are more likely to come into contact with cars if they are out on them. Wandering around, playing and socialising on the streets is, though, only one form of ‘being outdoors’, there are many others, ranging from simply ‘wandering’ around more rural areas (woodlands, beaches, fields), to structure outdoor team sports, to visiting outdoor sites with family, to outdoor experiences organised by Schools, National Parks and other child-centred organisations, the list is inexhaustible. For some, concerns about ‘being outdoors’ are also conflated with notions of independent mobility, and they are concerned not only for outdoor time, but also for the need for children to have independence from adults (Philo 2003; Skelton 2009), and to undertake their own risks (Briggs et al. 2014). Yet many of what might be regarded as outdoor roaming activities which may have considerable value for children require interdependent relationships with adults, for example, visits to wild areas which are away from their homes (which might include woodlands, beaches or mountains). Short of children being legally allowed to drive cars in the UK, it is unlikely that they could access some of these natural, wild spaces without the help of their parents, but this in itself complicates the notions of freedom and independence associated with ‘outdoor play’.

A recent report by the National Trust titled ‘Natural Childhood’ (Moss 2012) reflects the same concerns as Project Wild thing, but equally conflates roaming, freedom, exercise, the outdoors, nature and the wild. Project Wild Thing and Natural Childhood both assume that ‘free play in nature is good for children’, but what do they mean by ‘free’, ‘play’ and ‘nature’? In Project Wild Thing David laments his children’s lack of opportunity to play in the streets outside his house, but, whilst this is ‘outdoors’, it is not clear how such experiences square up with other outdoor possibilities for his children. Is playing freely in the streets somehow better or worse for them than being taken to the park, taking part in a sports team, going to a playground, being driven to the beach for a weekend, wandering around the woods with their parents, or indeed using a mobile app (part of the same technology set that many are concerned about in terms of ‘screen time’) to access outdoor opportunities? All of these kinds of experiences are of course different, but from my perspective as a researcher into Environmental Education and Outdoor Learning, I feel that it is of considerable importance to think about how we as individuals value these different experiences without resorting to ‘moral panic’ or ‘crisis’. Some of my own ongoing research is exploring how technology, such as mobile applications, might in fact encourage different forms of roaming in the outdoors, and indeed Project Wild Thing also demonstrates that mobile devices and the apps used on them can be tools for engaging children positively in outdoor play. Of course, this is different from the ‘unstructured’ outdoor experiences that some adult’s may remember from their own childhood, but this does not necessarily make them ‘worse’, in fact, they may spark children’s curiosity in new and highly positive ways. Therefore, it is equally important to consider how we value these things as a society, and what can be done about them at a societal level as well as at the level of the individual and the family.

Why is this important? For David in Project Wild Thing, it is unlikely that his busy street in London is going to become less busy: car ownership is going up, and his concerns over the risks for his children playing immediately outside are real, because cars can hit children and kill them. Of course there are things he, and many others could do as individuals and families to get his children out more, whether it is to experience (the huge varieties) of nature and ‘wild-ness’ we have in the UK, or to do more exercise.

But many of these opportunities, be they roaming in natural spaces or taking part in exercise, do not exist ‘naturally’, nor do they maintain themselves. Almost every corner of the British landscape has humans implicated in its management, our national parks, wild areas, urban parks and rural farmland are all managed or protected, our facilities for doing outdoor exercise require some form of human management or organisation, either from maintaining footpaths to walk and run on, to managing deer populations in the Scottish Highlands, to setting up children’s clubs or organisations that allow them to do exercise (sport or otherwise) outside. As David discovers in his marketing campaign for ‘Nature’, the outdoors and nature is not a product which can be sustained by the pseudo-market mechanisms we associate with capitalism. Just like education, healthcare and the law, and perhaps more controversially public transport and provision of some public services (water, sanitation, electricity), maintaining the huge variety of forms of the countryside/wilderness/nature that exist in the UK as a public good requires public investment, because it is not a ‘product’ which is marketable and sellable through market mechanisms. Unfortunately, like all public services that receive state funding, all arms of the state that provide and maintain children’s (and adult’s) access to nature, the wild, the outdoors and to exercise are seeing their budget’s cut. For example, many National Parks have ‘rights of way officers’ who work to maintain open access to footpaths across all wild and natural areas, yet under recent cuts to National Park Authorities many of these positions have been made redundant. These people are important because without them, footpaths will not be maintained, access will be restricted. Similarly many public facilities and institutions that enable children to ‘get outdoors’, city parks, sports grounds, schools and other organisations are seeing their budgets dwindle.

Perhaps these are less a priority than healthcare, basic education or policing. But if we accept some of the underpinnings of Project Wild Thing, and indeed research evidence, that health and wellbeing (both physical and mental) are tangibly entangled with exercise and time spent outdoors and in nature, then there is a strong argument to support this access. Yet in the UK whilst there appears to be public support for all of these public goods, there is not a concurrent acceptance that they require public funding. This is not just about re-fiddling public finances: the commonly-held British assumption that the funding ‘is there’ in government, it is just being poorly organised by inefficiencies in government or because of different priorities given to spending by different political parties. Across what is typically know as the ‘global North’ (Western Europe, the USA and Japan), countries that pay more tax have better public services. Nature, the Wild, the Outdoors, and opportunities to exercise and explore our curiosity outside are not marketable commodities, they are public goods and public services, and in order to maintain them, and increase their use and access requires public money. To put it more bluntly, those of us on middle- and higher-incomes need to pay more in tax.  



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