Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to see a screening at Victoria University of “Project Wild Thing,” a film by British filmmaker David Bond. Bond, the father of two young children, was dismayed by the lack of time that his children were spending out in nature, compared to his own childhood experience, and decided to document his journey into branding Nature and selling it as an essential commodity. The film followed themes such as nature deficit and risk aversion, touching on many of the topics that I have encountered in my own research on outdoor play over the years. Though the film is based in Britain, Bond clarified to this New Zealand audience that studies showed their much-vaunted outdoor ethic faced the same obstacles as those elsewhere in the world (screens, primarily) and was in danger of winding up in the same place as Britain in five years. His current film tour is intended to spread the word about children’s time in nature and to create a worldwide network to support outdoor play initiatives.
One of the principals who recently showed me around her school pointed out some small “wild” patches of native bush where the children could play and build forts. “I worry about the plants getting trampled,” she said, “but they like these spots more than the open areas.” She gestured toward an empty expanse of asphalt. Walking around to the other side of the school, kids just coming out for recess swarmed over the climbing structure tucked under some fruit trees, and into the trees themselves. Most of the children wore sun hats, and several were barefoot. Adults monitored them from a distance. This recess, the principal told me, followed morning tea (snack time) and lasted about 20 minutes, and there would be another after lunch. She added that the school placed a high priority on outdoor time. And, since many of these children lived in low-income housing in the city and didn’t get outside much, parents expected the school to provide them with outdoor experiences, both on and off campus.
The “Project Wild Thing” movie raised the question of whether children’s lack of time in nature was more an issue of supply or demand. Do children just prefer to spend time indoors in front of screens, or does society not provide them with adequate spaces and opportunities to be outside? Can schools be a haven for such experience in a country where 86% of its population has become urbanized?
A more pressing question, recent news from New Zealand makes clear, is whether a newly instigated threat of liability may remove even this benefit. In spite of government assurances that nothing in schools should change dramatically, a new health and safety bill has placed responsibility for children’s well-being directly on the shoulders of school principals. For the one who showed me her playground, fears of trampled plants are now likely the least of her worries.