20/01/2012 13:40 GMT | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Outdoor Play: Why Should Children Be Turfed Outside To Shiver In A Downpour For Hours?

Children playing outside Getty

Modern children aren't playing outside enough, and if we don't peel them away from TV screens and computers - pronto - and give kids more opportunities to play outdoors, they're all going to end up with rickets and attention deficit disorder.

I am so tired of hearing that line of argument from so-called parenting experts. Last week I heard some self-appointed guardian of modern childhood decree that children should spend at least as much time playing outside as they do watching TV or playing computer games.

As the mother of two little boys who love wasting time on their Wii, that made me laugh out loud. Living in Ireland as we do means playing outside for hours every day just isn't always an option for my children, unless shoving them outside to stand shivering in a downpour counts as 'playing'.

Kids (and their parents) seem damned if they do and damned if they don't. One minute they're being slapped with fines for making too much noise while playing in the garden; the next, they're being branded layabouts who don't get outdoors enough.

And now Nick Hurd, the minister for civil society, has jumped on the bandwagon, saying that over-cautious parents and their concerns about the dangers of outdoor play have led to a 'cotton wool' culture.

His comments stem from figures published by the Play England charity, whose research revealed that a third of youngsters have never climbed a tree or built a den, and one in 10 children can't ride a bike. Moreover, only 21 per cent of children aged between six and 15 play outdoors daily near their home, compared to 71 per cent of their parents when they were young.

Hmm. But can we believe the testimony of their parents, or is it possible that they're remembering their childhoods through rose-tinted spectacles? Doesn't everyone believe their childhood was an idyllic blur of riding your bike in your street and camping in the garden?

I've even read an article that suggests that children who don't spend enough time playing outdoors are more likely to be short-sighted.

I don't deny the veracity of such research, and it's certainly worrying to think that parents might be inadvertently doing a disservice to the wellbeing of their children.


But I do object to the implication that modern parents are wrapping kids in cotton wool and deliberately restricting their health and freedom just because we're afraid they might take a tumble off a slide or be kidnapped by strangers with malicious intent.


Mum of two Carrie Barclay is co-founder of Digital Bungalow. She agrees that screen time shouldn't take priority over other activites, but acknowledges that spending all day playing at the park isn't a realistic option either.

"My kids watch very little TV, and only occasionally play on the computer," Carrie says. "I strongly believe that parents shouldn't use TV and computers as an electronic babysitter. Spending time outside is fine but the weather can be a hindrance. However, there are lots of activities kids can take part in like Brownies, Scouts, gymnastics, dancing and swimming, which don't cost the earth, help with social skills and keep kids active."

Ultimately, Carrie thinks modelling healthy habits is more important than turfing your kids outside to play in the street.

"When it comes to exercise, it's important to start them young and be a good role model," Carrie explains. "If you spend hours slumped in front of the TV or playing computer games then your children are going to learn these habits from you. I've been taking my daughter for long walks since she was old enough to climb a hill and she regularly does five mile hikes with her grandparents and their dogs. Setting a good example and living a healthy, balanced lifestyle is the best way to make sure your kids follow in your footsteps."



My sons play outside as much as possible but I don't take kindly to experts telling me that it's not enough.


Should I let me children play unattended in our street? No way - modern roads have way more cars than 20 years ago, for starters - but between playing with them outside on our trampoline and ferrying them from swimming lessons, gymnastics, dance class, horse-riding and the whirlwind that is their social life, I just don't buy the theory that they're woefully deficient in something as arbitrary as den-building time.

And if they are, I think they'll live.

What do you think?
Should are children be playing outside more, or are we all doing the best we can?