Outdoor Play: 50 Things To Do Before You’re 11¾

Swallows and Amazons, out this August, shows the beauty of outdoor play – sailing, camping, building fires. Johanna Derry asks a child psychologist and the National Trust why children spend less time outdoors, and for 50 ways to engage with nature…

The film remake of Swallows and Amazons out this August shows children sailing boats, camping alone, and building fires. But in the non-fictional, urban-dominated, 21st century world, would any of us actually let our children play in such a risky way? The National Trust, concerned about the growing disengagement and fear surrounding outdoor play and the countryside, launched its 50 Things initiative four years ago to try and turn the tide. The Early Hour finds out more about striking the balance between children’s safety and their need for risk and adventure.

In 2009 studies published by Natural England and Play England both found that children play out half as much as their parents did – fewer than one in ten regularly play in wild places, a third have never climbed a tree, and one in ten can’t ride a bike. The National Trust’s own report, published four years ago, suggested that we’re all suffering from a modern phenomenon known as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, especially our children, resulting in a growth in physical health problems including obesity, mental health problems, and children’s growing inability to assess risk to themselves and others.

Their response was to create a list, 50 Things To Do Before You’re 11¾, aimed at giving children and their families ‘wild time’, including things as challenging as climbing a tree and canoeing a river to gentler activities like hunting for bugs and catching a falling leaf. Over the last four years they’ve found that children who get at least 25 of the 50 things under their belt are 15 per cent more connected to nature than when they hadn’t done any, and participating in ‘50 Things’ activities makes them more likely to spend time engaging with nature, encouraging them in turn to care about other species and the environment.

Children finding a crab whilst rock-pooling on the beach at Poldhu Cove on the Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall.
Children finding a crab whilst rock-pooling on the beach at Poldhu Cove on the Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall.

“There are lots of reasons why we’re not outside as much,” says Dee Whittle. Based in Birmingham, she’s the National Trust’s first Urban Green Space Project Manager. In short, her job is to re-engage communities with the outdoors, whether that’s in the Clent Hills or on the acre of green space in the middle of their estate.

“More than half the population lives in cities, and where people used to have family in farming and might have spent summers in the country, that’s not the case anymore, so people aren’t visiting the countryside. As a result lots of the young people I work with haven’t made the connection between a tree and the wooden objects they use, or picked fruit to understand where their food comes from. Lots of people in cities don’t understand how the countryside is a resource.”



On top of that Whittle cites media scaremongering around crime, the overwhelming emphasis placed on children’s safety, advances in indoor entertainment, insurance claims against councils for injuries, and even something as simple as not having the right clothing as reasons we’re all spending less time outdoors.

Child making a den at Lydford Gorge, ©NTPL John Millar - outdoor play, theearlyhour.com
Child making a den at Lydford Gorge, ©NTPL John Millar

“If you don’t have a pair of wellies and a waterproof coat, that means you can only go out when you know the weather is going to be fine.”

The reasons are clearly more complicated than simply to blame helicopter parenting and the Playstation, but the tide in public opinion is changing, and parents are largely in favour.
“One of the main benefits of being outdoors is that it encourages children to play in a very different way,’ says child developmental psychologist Dr Sam Weiss. ‘They have to use their imagination, and their own creativity, much more they do when they are indoors, watching screen media.”

“Letting children play out helps them develop balance and coordination, it improves their health and wellbeing, and it allows them to learn their limits in terms of risk taking behaviour,’ Whittle adds. ‘We want there to be an element of risk because that’s where the adventure is, and that’s what’s exciting and engaging.”
As part of her work, Whittle runs events and activities with children and young people (including those older than 11¾) based on some of the 50 Things and taking it beyond the list to what some might consider to be too risky for children – fire starting and whittling with knives, for example.

Rockpooling at South Milton Sands, Devon.
Rockpooling at South Milton Sands, Devon.

“Fire starting is exciting because it’s forbidden. Because we don’t really have fires in our homes anymore children aren’t learning about them or how to light a fire safely.”

She believes introducing ‘risky’ activities to children in a controlled way when their younger, helps prevent anti-social risk-taking behaviour later one.

“In some of the green spaces in Birmingham we had a huge amount of antisocial behaviour with people using petrol to light things that wouldn’t burn properly, stolen motorbikes with their petrol tanks set on fire, and aerosol fires that spread to the woodlands. It was very very risky behaviour. Within a couple of years of running fire starting workshops we’ve seen a massive drop in that kind of activity. They will explore by themselves, but in a riskier way, so I think it’s more positive to allow children to explore but in a controlled way.”

The evidence weighs in her favour, and she finds that many parents also want to join in.

“Often they’ve never done some of these things either, a second generation of people who can’t light a fire safely. Think about how many paraffin tasting burgers you’ve had at a barbecue because we don’t have the skills to start a fire anymore!”

Children on mud walk, Box Hill © National Trust Images John Millar - outdoor play, theearlyhour.com
Children on mud walk, Box Hill © National Trust Images John Millar

It’s not all about the big risks. Most of the activities on the 50 Things list are things anyone can do and anywhere, with little or no cost.

“You don’t have to go to an area of natural beauty. You can do most of them on that bit of grass that’s in the middle of your estate, and get your dad or grandma to join in with you.”

For those of us harried by urban living, perhaps it’s something that could be good for us all, not just for our children.

Outdoor play ideas

50 Things To Do Before You’re 11¾

  1. Climb a tree
  2. Roll down a really big hill
  3. Camp out in the wild
  4. Build a den
  5. Skim a stone
  6. Run around in the rain
  7. Fly a kite
  8. Catch a fish with a net
  9. Eat an apple straight from a tree
  10. Play conkers
  11. Go on a really long bike ride
  12. Make a trail with sticks
  13. Make a mud pie
  14. Dam a stream
  15. Play in the snow
  16. Make a daisy chain
  17. Set up a snail race
  18. Create some wild art
  19. Play pooh sticks
  20. Jump over waves
  21. Pick blackberries growing in the wild
  22. Explore inside a tree
  23. Visit a farm
  24. Go on a walk barefoot
  25. Make a grass trumpet
  26. Hunt for fossils and bones
  27. Go star gazing
  28. Climb a huge hill
  29. Explore a cave
  30. Hold a scary beast
  31. Hunt for bugs
  32. Find some frogspawn
  33. Catch a falling leaf
  34. Track wild animals
  35. Discover what’s in a pond
  36. Make a home for a wild animal
  37. Check out the crazy creatures in a rock pool
  38. Bring up a butterfly
  39. Catch a crab
  40. Go on a nature walk at night
  41. Plant it, grow it, eat it
  42. Go swimming in the sea
  43. Build a raft
  44. Go bird watching
  45. Find your way with a map and compass
  46. Try rock climbing
  47. Cook on a campfire
  48. Learn to ride a horse
  49. Find a geocache
  50. Canoe down a river

How do you feel about outdoor play – are you happy to let your kids roam, or does the very idea scare you half to death? We’d love to hear your thoughts…