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Outdoor Education, Obesity and the Off Switch

Posted: 08/03/2012 23:00

This week the Director General of the National Trust, Dame Fiona Reynolds, spoke to the Times about the Trust's 'Wild Child' campaign to get more children to play outdoors this Spring and Summer. In the article she said, "Children are missing out on the sheer joy and physical and mental wellbeing of being able to play outside." She goes on to say that "It's partly technology and it's partly a sort of nervousness. The freedom for children to roam unsupervised has shrunk by 90% since the 70s."

Certainly a perceived increase in stranger danger makes many parents worry about their children being out and about on their own. But is technology also really to blame for the perceived lack of children's outdoor experiences? Are children and parents really so tightly held by the grip of the digital screen that they find it impossible to turn it off and head outside?

I'm unconvinced by the moral panic around technology in children's lives. The seminal text for the modern anxious parent is Toxic Childhood - How the Modern World is Damaging our Children and what we can do about it. Sue Palmer's chapter on the Electronic Village paints a grim picture of this place where the 'electronic babysitter' is in charge. Its contents are enough to make both parents and educators worry for the future of our kids.

However, the evidence about the link between technology and problems in children's lifestyles is far from convincing. In 2007 Professor Tanya Byron was commissioned by the Department for Children Schools and Families to write a report on the dangers posed by technologies for children and young people and in early 2008 Safer Children in a Digital World was published. It is thought provoking reading for parents, teachers and all those involved in children's lives, reflecting on the developmental, health and social dangers posed by use of technology. It looks at the real evidence about how technology affects children's lives and finds both positive and negative impacts.

Professor Byron's report does not suggest that we keep children well away from digital devices, instead she began a campaign for education supporting children, parents and teachers in learning about ways they can interact with technologies in ways that mitigate against the dangers.

For me, as an educator and a parent this is the way forward. We can't let ourselves be consumed by the panic about technology and blame it for the all the challenges, problems and stresses of modern parenting and childhood. We have to accept and embrace the role technology plays in our lives and help children to learn how to use it appropriately and enjoyably and when, crucially, to switch it off.

I don't see any conflict between technology and the great outdoors. In fact I think there are many ways in which technologies can be used by teachers and families to enhance their outdoor experiences. Holiday videos of picnics and adventures in the woods are my daughter's favourite viewing. We watch and talk about what we did, what we found and when we can go back.

The car satellite navigation is helping to teach about maps and when the kids are older I expect them to be using our GPS device to help them learn how to find their way about in the countryside. Walks in our local country park are enhanced by audio and text commentary via our mobile phones. For older kids and adults Geocaching, a digitally based treasure hunting game is a craze involving a worldwide internet-based community.

So I'm with Peppa Pig and her family, we all like putting on our wellies, going outdoors and jumping in muddy puddles. If we are going to enable more children to enjoy that and the educational and health benefits that come from it, we don't need to get rid of technology all together but we need to learn to use it in creative and appropriate ways.

 

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