Last summer, as part of our favourite Outdoor Family Camping programme, we took five excited families away for four days to the beautiful woodlands behind Green Farm Kent. For all the families, it was their first time camping as a family, and for some their very first holiday together.
The sun was shining and we did everything you’d expect on a good old-fashioned camping trip: putting up tents, collecting firewood, cooking around the fire and watching the stars that are always hidden from Londoners by light pollution. Admittedly, it wasn’t the most intrepid of adventures, but for all of the kids, it was their first time sleeping in a tent and away from home - so an adventure after all.
These trips aren’t just there to give just give the kids exciting new experiences but to provide an opportunity for the whole family to learn the basic skills required to go away together and to share in the fun of getting outdoors. Even simple tasks can seem daunting to first time campers used to city conveniences. The compost toilet was a new experience for almost everyone, as was feeding the chickens! Cooking for your family outdoors simply takes a lot longer, but is fun in a different way. The nights were especially dark...so we lit candles to light the way to the toilet!
Lack of knowledge and confidence is often cited by parents as a key factor in why they don’t spend more time outdoors with their children, these trips give families the confidence to go camping again and again by themselves and it works: we’ve lent tents and mats to some of the families who came away with us last year, and they all want to go again!
So why did we do this? it wasn't - just - to give families a chance to go on holiday, a good reason though that would be. It surprised us to find out three years ago that while lots of charities take children away to camps, very few take whole families. This seems slightly crazy to us - if you don't take the parents or carers with the children, how can they have go another time? It's like the old saying, give a man a fish and he won't be hungry that night, but teach him to fish....
While its true some families don’t go away camping or on outdoors adventures together, the underlying societal issue is how children's freedom to play is restricted when they're back at home. There is lots of evidence showing that many children simply don't go out to play. One in seven of London's children NEVER go to a green space and across the UK 73% of children play outdoors for less than an hour a day. No Ball Games signs proliferate. Housing Associations tell children not to chalk or cycle on communal spaces. Schools in the UK - in direct contrast to counterparts on the continent - tell all parents that children must be accompanied.
It seems that children are getting fewer and fewer chances to simply play outside.
Yet, recent studies have shown that freedom to play and explore their environment is essential for the mental health of children, especially when that play is perceived by the children as 'dangerous' – say for instance around an open fire and playing in the woods or in the campsite. These experiences provide a chance to learn to share communal space, to learn to manage risks, to be creative and respond to unexpected outcomes amongst many. many other attributes, all essential for both developing the resilience and key skills to navigate childhood and later for a healthy and happy adult life.
Furthermore, these camping trips into the British countryside (although just an hour out of London!) provide a great opportunity for children to build personal relationships with nature: to climb trees and hunt for bugs; to hug chickens; to pet pigs; to experience nature directly instead of on a screen. At Outdoor People, we believe that only by building these personal relationships with nature that children can come to understand that it is their responsibility as human animals to look after the environment.
It’s clear how important outdoor adventures can be in children’s development but sadly, the biggest barriers cited by parents stopping children getting these experiences are:
- fear of their children being hurt by the world
- fear of traffic
- fear of bad weather
- fear of getting dirty
- fear of not knowing where is safe to go
- fear of what neighbours and schools might say if they do let their children outdoors
Fear is a big, big barrier.
There are also the pressures of homework, after school clubs and generally more busy lives. Everyone is getting less time to just stop and stare. Especially kids.
Many studies say that screens are to blame - but reading around the extensive literature it is clear that screens are generally a displacement activity. Not allowed to play outdoors? Might as well go on the Gameboy.
And for children living in the urban environments of East London there are other constraints: for example, a lack of play spaces. Where are they supposed to play when every wall seems to have a 'No Ball Games' sign on it?
All of these barriers and more are what are motivating us to help families have their first camping experience. When camping, we try and cultivate an environment where parents feel comfortable enough to let their children play freely and out of sight; while they get a chance to relax in the sun. They get to see and hear how important it is to let children be independent and discover things for themselves. They get to feel what letting go a bit feels like... and discuss how to bring home a bit of that freedom, to have the confidence to encourage their children to be a bit wild. And to get a bit of wildtime for themselves.
Outdoor Family Camping offers families experiences that are difficult in inner cities - the chance to let children under the age of 10 roam free, whilst parents get to relax. They also have time to be together without TVs and the internet. They get to be apart but near enough.
"He's knackered! He'll sleep well!"
"Great to see their appetite!"
"He's no bother here! Not been a single tantrum!" (Ok that didn't last the whole time!)
"I love they can just play together!"
"Wow, I didn't know s/he could do that"
A key part of the experience is encouraging these conversations, reflecting on why time to play - together as a family, independently and with their new friends - is important. And to think about how we might take those experiences home.
We hope some of these families will join us next time to pass on their new skills to others that haven't had a go before, to encourage the first-time campers to let go a bit more. The children will be able to take the next group to see the den places and secret spaces... and no doubt discover some more...
It was a magical few days last summer, that hopefully did more than just create good memories. It was the start of just a bit more outdoors time every day.
If you'd like to find out a bit more about Outdoor Family Camping 2017 please see our event: https://outdoorpeople.org.uk/blogs/events/outdoor-family-camping-green-farm-kent-9th-12th-august-2017
We'd like to thank the great folks from:
- Green Farm Kent for giving us use of their amazing space, being fantastic hosts, so generous with their time and encouraging the children to really experience the farm. Do check out their Spa and holidays!
- School for Social Entrepreneurs for the small grant and helping us get the business plan together to make this happen!
- Vango and Blacks of Greenock for letting us have the tents at a great subsidised cost, helping us eek out the money this costs!
- Storm Care Waterproofing (and a Scout troop of fab young people) who reproofed all our older Merdina Conquest tents for free!
- And the great folks who rented tents at Exhale and other events over the year - every tent hire helped subsidise this holiday and future trips!