Dr Linda Papadopoulos is the ambassador for the new Make Time 2 Play campaign, which aims to get children more active by playing outdoors, safely.
We caught up with Linda to ask her about her involvement with the campaign and for some tips on how you can get your child active without putting them in danger.
You’re working with Make Time 2 Play and their new research shows that parents believe it’s more dangerous for children to play outdoors now, do you believe this?
LP: I certainly believe that the environment in which children play has changed, and to some extent that can make it feel more dangerous. There’s certainly a lot more cars on many of the streets and we don’t all live in small communities where everyone knows each other anymore. With the advent of the internet there’s a real sense that we know more about the danger of strangers. Having said that, I think we shouldn’t overstate the problem.
How important is it for children to play outdoors?
LP: It’s really important. Play is fundamental to a child’s well-being, cognitively, physically, and emotionally. Just being able to experience the outdoors, whether it’s getting dirty or running around, is so important for a child’s development. It’s not just about physical development, but also about improving motor skills, and also their confidence to manage the environment they live in.
Whether it’s getting them to walk to school, or encouraging them to splash in puddles in the back garden, if you can do it, then you should absolutely do it.
What do you think parent’s main concerns are when it comes to letting their children play outdoors?
LP: I think the main concerns that Make Time 2 Play’s research has shown is either around traffic or the concerns about strangers. Both of these are completely understandable.
Having said that, though, there’s a real danger in letting fear contaminate the way that a child is allowed to interact with their environment. I certainly wouldn’t advise leaving a child ill-equipped to deal with the outdoors, but there are some great things you can do. Speak about road safety: do role-playing and practice runs for crossing the road, looking both ways, and so on.
With stranger danger, make sure children know not to talk to strangers, not to get into cars with people they don’t know, ensure that they’re playing in a safe environment. In a close neighbourhood, parents can take turns to watch the children, or the children can be checking in as arranged at different houses, and so there are ways around the issues which won’t have to limit how our children play.
How do you think being restricted to indoor play hinders children’s development?
LP: Well, I think physically, more than anything. They’re just not going to move around as much. Also, you know, getting your body to do some work – the physicality of play – helps children to see their bodies for what they can do, rather than just what they look like, which is vitally important for building confidence.
Child obesity is a big problem in the UK, do you think children doing less activity outdoors contributes to this?
LP: In a word, yes. Schools do a great job trying to get kids to be more active, but the fact is that we live in more urban environment these days. In urban centres especially, there’s not much space, and there’s often not much time, so the simple act of, say, skipping to school or playing tag with your friend in the back yard is still valuable. They don’t have to play a huge structured game of 5-a-side football, just playing hide and seek and running around will provide the active play they need.
What would your tips be for parents who feel uneasy about letting their children play outdoors?
LP: I’d start off with boundaries like an amount of time to play. I wouldn’t start off giving them completely unstructured time, I’d say I want you back in five minutes. If you live in a small enclosed street, you can take turns with your neighbours to watch them. Or maybe you just allow them to play in the back yard to start with.
Help to explore the environment with your child. It’s going to be very different if you live in a cul-de-sac or if you live in a high-rise building, but consider, what are the dangers? Talk to your child about how to cope with situations that might arise.
Fundamentally, do not to let fear contaminate your child’s play environment. Be rational and limit the dangers, but if you want to take it to its logical conclusion, there’s dangers inside and out. So, just as you would childproof your environment indoors, think about removing dangers outdoors as well.
Dr Linda Papadopoulos is a counselling psychologist and ambassador for the Make Time 2 Play campaign. For more details, see maketime2play.com, become a fan on Facebook, or follow @maketime2play on Twitter. And for hundreds of free play ideas to fill the time you have created outdoors, download the free Make Time 2 Play app.