On Digging in the Mud

On the Importance of Outdoor Play

This is how I remember my childhood: climbing the highest trees; clambering up the biggest boulders; hiding under the roots of fallen trees; sneaking under hedges; picking fruit; planting seeds; adoring pussy willow and sweet peas; eating green peas straight from the pod; catching newts and slow worms; drawing in the sand; wandering around forests; walking bare foot on every surface; placing my tiny animal toys in plants and taking photos (which invariably came out fuzzy because I had no idea how the camera actually worked); squealing at ducklings; reading books with my back against a sunny wall; visiting castles with my sister and my grandparents; picnics in gardens; stomping around a snowy garden with plastic bags tied over my shoes or tennis rackets strapped to my feet; searching for bugs under rocks; cycling off on adventures with friends; sliding down snowy slopes on plastic bags; splashing in streams; relishing days so sunny we got to do our lessons outdoors.

There's a flash image of watching Pigeon Street while my mum ironed behind me. I clearly remember raiding the toy cupboards at relatives' houses and coveting the Lego. I recall hiding in cupboards, drawing maps of imaginary places or writing stories about adventures. But the vast majority of my memories are of the outdoors.

I don't know how accurate that is; I was always a bookworm and I did a lot of drawing so I suppose I spent a lot of time holed up indoors, doing quiet activities.

But I remember running free.

Recently, I've attended talks by both Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood and chair of Upstart Scotland (a campaign to introduce a kindergarten stage for 3-7 year olds), and Jan White, "mudologist", an expert in children's outdoor play provision. Both emphasised how important it is for children to play outdoors as much as possible, to direct their own play and to be physically active.

It's not just about keeping children fit; it's about keeping them physically and mentally healthy, teaching them focus and resilience and self-confidence, encouraging their curiosity and creativity, and even allowing them to develop stronger social skills.

Though that last did bring out my mum guilt.

MM and I spend a lot of time outdoors. One of the benefits, for me, of her not being at nursery is that we can head out to parks or the beach or toddle around the garden whenever we feel like it; we can spend large chunks of every day pootling about in the fresh air, poking at mud and foraging for garlic and smelling the flowers and fooling local cats into coming close and splashing in puddles and waving great big bubble wands.

But the downside of her not being at nursery when most of her friends are is that it's usually just her and me. She doesn't spend as much time hanging out with other toddlers as I would like. I do sometimes feel like she's missing out, staying at home.

People tell me toddlers don't interact that much, anyway. And they don't. We can spend three hours with another toddler and the kids will interact for maybe ten minutes of that time. But I can see that those ten minutes matter to her. She likes to hand other kids books and toys to play with; she likes to chase her almost-two-year-old buddy up and down the slide (eek!); she enjoys toddling around the park next to somebody her own size. If we've spent time with slightly older children, even if seems like they haven't paid the slightest bit of attention to each other, later that day I'll catch her trying to copy some of the things she saw them doing. She does like to be around other kids.

But, in typical mum guilt fashion, I suspect I'm being too hard on myself. We generally see other kids on at least four of the five Steve-free days a week.

And, to get back to the point of this post: we spend a lot of time outdoors.

But these talks have inspired me to do more.

My head is full of plans for the garden (most of which will have to wait until next year because our garden is so clotted with flowers right now it's either a shambles or utterly gorgeous, depending on how neat you like your borders). I've ordered books of things for kids to do outdoors - even one about things for kids to do outdoors when the weather is cold, wet or windy (not all three at once, though - I'm not that enthusiastic). I've bought myself wellies.

And a parent friend and I have agreed to get the kids together every week (barring the usual illnesses, inevitable family get togethers and hypothetical holidays) to do something outdoors. We both live in very green areas so we're going to go exploring.

The older the kids get, the more we're going to take steps back and let them come up with their own fun.

How about you? Was your childhood spent in the mud?