GRIFFIN LONGLEY wondered where all the kids had gone.
The places he and his brothers ran wild growing up in Fremantle were deserted. Parks that should have rung with the laughter and tears of children were silent—even on perfect, sunny weekends.
A bush teepee he’d built with his own kids alongside Clontarf Hill was supposed to be added to by others as a neighbourhood cubby. But no one ever found it and years later it’s still there; untouched and slowly being reclaimed by creepers.
So the Beaconsfield resident started asking questions and what he discovered is so shocking it could even affect our national identity.
Kids are forgetting how to play.
Sure, there’s plenty out on the footy ovals and netball courts, but they’re following an adult with a whistle who keeps them to a strict set of rules.
“Random mucking around in places like this has almost disappeared,” Mr Longley told the Herald atop a deserted Clontarf Hill on a warm, sunny afternoon.
A recent review of psychiatric literature and results from school tests found that 85 per cent of modern children have less creativity than their parents.
The ramifications include a generation with less ability to make decisions, solve problems or socialise. And there’s growing evidence linking the lack of outdoor play with a raft of mental problems.
Mr Longley says this may affect Australia’s ability to compete globally in the future.
“When you think about how we’re competing beyond our weight in terms of sports, science, business and even the military, it’s because we’ve had the most outdoor lifestyle of anyone.
“We’ve had rugged, resilient, creative, hard-working people—I mean that’s how we’ve been interpreted, how we’ve thought about ourselves.
“For most of us, part of what we like about our sense of Australian identity is our little bit of ruggedness and that little bit of anti-authoritarianism, which happens when you spend time on your own and not under the control of someone else’s rules.”
Mr Longley wrote about the problem in his column in the West Australian, which bought him to the notice of WA’s department of sport and recreation.
The department had noticed that while it had succeeded in raising WA’s participation rates in sport, physical activity was actually declining, so it asked Mr Longley to join a think tank in 2010 to look into it.
From that the non-profit group Nature Play was born to work with schools and communities highlighting the benefits of sending children outdoors. Mr Longley is CEO.
Some of his experiences are eye-opening.
He was invited to a South West town where health professionals had noticed the town’s windows glowed blue with tvs every night and the parks were empty. A third of the kids had physical development problems.
He agreed to speak with parents and teachers on the condition he was given two tonne of brickies sand on the school oval. After the talk he invited the kids to take part in a sandcastle-building competition.
“After half an hour of a mist of yellow sand I called it quits and had a look, and the one that won was one single bucket of sand turned upside down with a daisy in it. That was it.”
He said the kids just didn’t know how to turn an idea in their head into something physical.
Things are slowly improving, with 70 schools recently responding to a Nature Play survey indicating they had either installed nature playgrounds or were in the process.
He says another big problem is fear, as parents are fed a stream of horror stories as part of the “60-second” news cycle and they start to retreat back into the home.
“There a bit of a negative snowball. If you ask parents why they don’t let their kids out to play, the number one reason they give is that there’s no kids out playing.
Statistics show that crimes against children by strangers are no worse than in previous generations, and in many areas have improved.
Mr Longley says one of his aims is to remind parents that their best memories of childhood would almost always be from outside, and often when there was no adult. They also have to rethink their ideas of risk, so they start seeing a sedentary lifestyle and its problems as the real risk (short-sightedness is another issue—rates in Australia are skyrocketing and it’s now being linked to the quality of indoor light rather than watching screens).
Locally he wants to see Clontarf Hill turned into a nature playground with rope bridges and swings, although Main Roads might have something to say about that, given that the hill’s in the direct line of its beloved Roe Highway.
by STEVE GRANT