It’s no secret that the slow creep of an indoor sedentary childhood and the increase in screen use has parents and experts across the globe alarmed.
Childhood has changed - and mostly not for the better.
I had been travelling around Queensland, presenting the Nature Play programs designed to help communities find ways to re-engage children with outdoor free play, when I had an epiphany about the role of the neighbourhood in a child’s ability to play.
Kids no longer roam.
Their habitat has been reduced. And their connections to community lost.
Could this be the smoking gun linked to the sharp rise in the physical and emotional issues embedded in this generation?
What if we could turn neighbourhoods back into places where children play?
Would that be enough to counteract the childhood health statistics that has experts on high alert?
This was the start of The Neighbourhood Play Project.
A project that would deliver a series of joyful successes, heartbreaking failures and would teach us that the deceptively simple act of child’s play was anything but!
The Neighbourhood Play Project had a simple goal - to find families who were willing to join us on a mission to activate their neighbourhoods as places for children to play.
We outlined a research project that determined what role parents should play and what broad range of support was needed to facilitate this resident-led activation of a neighbourhood.
We found two families from two very different neighbourhoods, who became our neighbourhood champions.
These families agreed to not only participate in the research project but be filmed too, so we could create a documentary about our findings and share their experiences with a broader audience.
Tracy and Marissa, our neighbourhood champions, embraced the project as they said their children were unable to connect with others and move around their community independently but they had no idea how to change things.
I encourage you to watch the documentary (here's a teaser) to follow their journey and discover the complexities that exist within communities.
And I can confidently state after the project that the two fundamental human behaviours preventing children from playing is TRUST and FEAR.
We don't trust.
We have an issue with trust - an overwhelming lack of it, and this is what we need to start rebuilding for the benefit of our children, the community, our nation and the future.
When did we decide that the majority of us are untrustworthy?
I consider myself trustworthy - I imagine you do too.
Where did this widespread sense of distrust and fear come from if the majority of us are trustworthy?
Which brings us to the other central issue impacting children’s ability to play – fear.
Fear fuels us.
There seems to be an overwhelming consensus among communities that we are all in constant danger, all the time.
Where did this fear come from?
When I think about my experience of the world, I find that 99% of the people I meet are good people and I really can’t remember the last time I felt I was in danger.
But it would seem we are embracing the message that we should live in constant fear as ‘You just don’t know who is out there’ and ‘You never know, when or if, it could happen to you’.
I am not saying bad things don’t happen and the consequences could be terrible.
The 24hr news cycle in our pockets constantly reminds us that unfortunate events occur.
For most of us though the reality is our days are uneventful, normal - dare I say it….even quite dull.
The shrinking of our children’s worlds is an outcome of decision-making based on this perceived threat of constant danger.
Instead of basing our decision making on direct experiences, we are basing our decisions on these perceived risks.
I understand the need to protect our children, I have four of my own.
However our overriding push for their protection is leaving unintended scars on their development.
Our fear and trust issues are impacting our children’s health and wellbeing - their sense of community, their connection with nature, their interest in the world beyond their front door and even their overall sense of trust in their fellow humans.
I am not safe, my neighbourhood is not safe, and everyone I don’t know is a threat. This is the message we are sending to children.
Our children give us their trust that we will do the best for them, but is it time to audit our own behaviour to ensure we are giving them the best possible childhood?
The most powerful lesson we learnt from The Neighourhood Play Project is ‘the antidote to fear is hope’.
The hope that families’ experiences, when they see that change in their community is possible and then watch their children take their first small, independent steps towards a more positive childhood.
But when parents are facing this a nation-wide culture of fear, the task to change seems insurmountable.
However what we learnt from this initiative is that the answer is simple.
It’s also easy, very rewarding and starts locally.
Get out into your neighbourhoods, knock on your neighbours doors, simply say hello.
For Tracy and Marissa, The Neighbourhood Play Project has given them a practical way forward, a sense of local agency, that they CAN make a difference, a real way to make change, with immediate and measurable results.
Tracy and Marissa’s sense of hope has grown into a tangible and practical way to rebuild their neighbourhoods as places to feel connected, and places for their children to play.
We are all changed as a result of The Neighbourhood Play Project. There is no turning back.
Tracy, Marissa and their children’s stories serve as an enlightening tale of hope and inspiration.
I hoped this project would give us a practical path forward for communities to become a place for play for our children.
What we saw is that reconnecting neighbourhoods reconnects our very humanity.
A Simple Plan Of Action
Click image above for a printable PDF version
Advanced Tips for Parents to Support Neighbourhood Play
- Share Your Plans: Talk through your concerns and plans with other neighbouring parents
- Share Leadership: Aim to share leadership of the community to strengthen the group and share the load
- Be Patient: and be prepared for peaks and troughs of engagement. Relationships take time.
- Scaffold Challenge: Build on your child’s exposure to the neighbourhood and cater for their level of challenge
- Plan for Expansion: Children will always want more, to expand their horizons.
- Face your Fears: Assess them based on your experience, and not perceptions of danger.
- Stop Saying NO: Before you say NO to your child’s neighbourhood play requests, stop to consider the realities of your concerns, and possible alternatives that will keep your child interested and out in the neighbourhood
- Explore with Children: From time to time go with your child to remain connected with their skills level in traverse the neighbourhood
- Planned Social Media: Use social media to connect and grow