Everyone has fond memories of creating their own and it is easy to assume that children everywhere still throw themselves into this universal activity, but the reality comes as a bit of a surprise.
Recent research has found that two- thirds of parents had adventures outdoors as a child but worry their children do not have the same opportunities today. Just over 40 % of children report they have never made a daisy chain, 32% have never climbed a tree, a quarter have never had the simple pleasure of rolling down a hill, a third have never played hopscotch and one in ten have never ridden a bike, and 29% say they have never built a den, despite 47% of adults having built dens as a child. This lack of outdoor play cannot just be attributed to children preferring to stay indoors with computers and televisions, but is also due in part to parental fears about dangers in playing outside.
Playday on August 1, the national day for play in the UK, is the ideal time to address this issue. A national celebration of children's right to play and a campaign that highlights the importance of play in children's lives, this year the theme is Get out and play! The aim is to help make sure that children and young people across the UK have the time, space and opportunity to play outdoors. As well as promoting children's right to play, the campaign is highlighting that outdoor play is crucial for children's health, well-being and happiness, echoing the aims of Go2Play in getting more children playing outside in some of Scotland's most deprived communities.
There are eight Scottish charities currently funded by Go2Play, a programme set up this year by the Scottish Government in association with Inspiring Scotland, which uses Play Rangers to facilitate free play after two years of research to determine how effective this approach is in helping children access outdoor play in their local communities. Play Rangers typically work in small teams visiting a different place, a park, estate play area or other public space once or twice a week for a couple of hours. They are equipped with sports, games, ideas and equipment and work to help the children find fun things to do in their local area while reassuring parents that it is safe for children to play outside.
The Come Den With Me competition which has been taking place in the lead-up to the 25th annual national Playday is part of this commitment to support outdoor play opportunities and to encourage everyone to take part. Glasgow Life has produced a Den Building Factsheet with tips and hints on how to construct the perfect space, big or small, which is available to download at http://weegridmag.co.uk/stories/show/77. The emphasis is on child-led play, as explained by Grace Lamont, depute director of The Jeely Piece Club in Glasgow's Castlemilk. "Play has been the background to The Jeely Piece Club for the 37 years it's been in operation, " she explains "We always knew we could do more to help children experience free play in a natural and local environment outside so the funding from Inspiring Scotland through Go Play was ideal as we can expand and develop on this. I'm from this area – in fact I was born opposite The Jeely Piece Club – and I love encouraging kids to play where I played. I don't know if I should be admitting this but I'm sure my initials are still carved on some of the trees we're playing on." She agrees that parental fear has been the stumbling block to many people enjoying Castlemilk Park, which is where the play sessions take place.
"There are different dangers now from when I was a child and in particular the drinking and drug culture which we see in groups of people using the park. Our team will always ask people in those situations to let the children play in peace and we've never had a problem. They move on and we get on with it, though clearing up is an ongoing issue and broken glass is our biggest problem. We provide wellies and waterproofs and we're out with the kids six days a week, with them setting the agenda because we're here to allow them to enjoy themselves. So it could be a leisurely walk, or making a fabulous mudslide, lollipop stick races, playing in the stream and generally having dirty, messy, fantastic fun. It's so good for them in building up their confidence, letting them play in a team and organising themselves – some of the kids coming here have to be taught to walk along a log the first time we take them into the woods and yet within days they're totally transformed."
Miranda Munro does a similar job with the PEEK Project in the East End of Glasgow, but comes to it with a slightly different perspective, having previously worked in the Bronx in New York. "Children don't play outside in New York because so many people live in buildings which are 14 floors high and taller," she explains. "There's the same fear about letting them outside but it's exacerbated when the majority of parents simply cannot see them by glancing out of the window. However, children are the same all over – they just want someone to play with them and the den building has been a fantastic success, as have the fishing trips to Barmulloch Nature Reserve. Lots of kids don't even know their own neighbours, and apart from the fun of getting outdoors they're building confidence, developing their social skills and making new friends." Neither the damp summer nor the possibility of a cold Scottish winter daunt her in the slightest. " I'll just wear a bigger coat, "she laughs. "We'll make igloos and snow angels and work round the weather. We're outside and we're staying out."
A further six charities offer the same opportunities in Aberdeenshire, Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway and Lanarkshire, often in areas children and adults wouldn't previously have considered as a play space which helps to reduce parents' fears and apprehensions about children not being safe. Recent initiatives have seen the introduction of free play into city back closes which might previously have been deserted and derelict, but which are now being used to create new and exciting play opportunities for children who are reclaiming their own areas.