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The new Persil ad, the latest in their #dirtisgood theme, is without doubt, powerful. It draws on research that claims to show that one in two children in the UK age six to 11 spend less than an hour outside; the minimum UN guidelines for prisoners is two hours.

The research apparently also found that one in 10 children in this age group never play outdoors. I assume this means in an unstructured, unsupervised way, rather than in organised outdoor sport. And as an aside, doesn’t that mean that 90% of children do play outdoors? And if half of children spend less than an hour a day playing outside, doesn’t that imply that half of them do spend more than an hour a day doing so? And that’s in spite of spending six hours a day at school, doing homework, attending goodness knows what music, art, sport, swimming clubs… and so on.

I find that quite heartening, especially given the clear trend in children spending less time outside than previous generations did (come to think of it, I wonder how many adults spend less time outdoors than they used to? Free the Grown-Ups!) I also know full well that this is a problem, not just for the physical, psychological and cognitive health of individual children, but for the wellbeing of families and of wider communities. And I know it matters for the environment too, since the more time children spend in nature, the more likely they are to care about green issues.

My point is that, when I saw the ad (which ends with a shot of an empty swing, the slogan ‘Free the kids’ and the Persil logo) it felt like finger-wagging, because it is aimed squarely at those who do the laundry. Parents. Mums. Children might be the ‘imprisoned’ in this metaphor, but it’s us who are being made to feel guilty.

But many of us parents hate the fact that our children don’t get out more.  We want to let the children out more, we really, really do. The Wild Network (which I write for) wants to see every child roam free and play wild, has identified the main barriers to children playing out. Time and again, its 27,000 or so members – parents, teachers, group-leaders and so on – say that these include the lure of screens, parental fear (of cars and strangers), time and space/places. We are wringing our hands, tearing our hair out, clinging to ever-more-distant memories of what it was like before.

My worry is that if we busy ourselves blaming parents, other perpetrators may get off scot-free. If we want to ‘free the kids’, we need to look beyond the front-door key-holders and settle our gaze on the many other visible and not-so-visible forces who are complicit in this crime.

So, j’accuse: the computer giants who groom our children; our car-obsessed culture; those who peddle fear and stranger-danger; the police who frog-march children out of parks; the passers-by who scowl at teenagers socialising on street corners because the youth service has been decimated; developers who pour concrete over our common land, green belts and urban fringes; the education policies that strip nature from curriculums and force schools to prioritise SATs cramming over free time; the economy that lays off street-cleaners, so that litter and dog mess accumulate. So let’s speak truth to powder! Sorry, power.

Goodness, it’s getting a bit crowded in this dock. Let’s share the guilt. If we’re going to ‘free the kids’, we need to do it together. It’s not just up to those of us who decide which laundry brand to drop in the trolley.


You can read my post ‘Free the Kids with Not-Car Maps’ on The Wild Network’s blog.


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