Film-maker David Bond is on a mission to reconnect kids with nature and promote the benefits of outdoor play. Sue Palmer finds out about Project Wild Thing
It started with a vague feeling of unease. His children’s lives were so different from his own childhood.
‘They have this huge appetite for technology,’ says film-maker David Bond. When his daughter was four, he was amazed at her knowledge about electronic media, and her devotion to TV. ‘I asked how much she loved it and she said, “One hundred billion.”’
But she didn’t love playing outdoors, the way Bond had as a child. Did this matter?
Bond’s unease soon turned to alarm. The many experts he interviewed were united in their concern about the decline of outdoor play, the screen-based nature of children’s lives and their lack of connection with the natural world.
A complex web of social changes, including the hijacking of play by commercial forces and parental fears for their offspring’s safety, has transformed children’s lifestyles in a generation. No one knows what the long-term consequences will be. ‘The extent to which children’s culture has been encroached on by adult concerns and anxieties is unprecedented,’ says play specialist Tim Gill.
What the experts do know is that play, especially play in the natural world, is vital for children’s physical and mental health. It underpins everything from self-confidence and social skills to behaviour control and emotional resilience.
It may be vital for society’s future, too. When Bond asked psychology professor Jaak Panksepp what would happen if children didn’t play, he replied, ‘We’d be left with an adult society that looks like Lord Of The Flies. Everything would be an unstructured mob.’ Scary stuff.
Bond was keen to reverse the trend before a generation of children loses touch with the natural world. But he wanted his film to make a positive case for natural play, rather than dwelling on what’s gone wrong. He saw no point in ‘bashing the brands’ or saying ‘the world’s a disaster and we’re all terrible parents’.
So Project Wild Thing, which is in the cinemas in June and on Channel 4 soon afterwards, accentuates the positive benefits of playing outdoors. Bond appoints himself marketing director for Nature, and sets out to sell outdoor play to a generation of techno-consumers and their parents.
Advised by brand expert Michael Wolf ‘to create a Nature brand-file in their brains in which to store happy experiences’, Bond enlisted the help of marketers to design a billboard campaign, a Wild Time app and an Out And About pack for new parents. These can all be found on the Project Wild Thing website, along with lots of other helpful advice from nature enthusiasts. And there’ll be plenty of other zappy ideas when the film is released.
Project Wild Thing has attracted support from many organisations, including the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, the National Trust, the RSPB and the Eden Project. It’s also become something of a rallying point for all those worried experts. Stephen Moss, author of the National Trust’s 2011 report on The Natural Child and producer of BBC’s Springwatch programmes, is full of admiration. He’s also aware of the difficulties in making the film.
‘This isn’t like Jamie’s School Dinners,’ he says. ‘It’s not a one-issue question with a simple solution. It’s incredibly complex – health, education, play, human relationships, community values… they’re all involved. But it’s important to try because the benefits of reconnecting children with nature are so huge and the downside if we get it wrong is so worrying.’
Gill is also impressed by Bond’s efforts, and hopes the film will ‘galvanise parents and others to get kids out of doors, into the real world, away from screens, without scaring parents witless’.
Play is by nature unpredictable. As Project Wild Thing gathered pace, Bond’s own story took another twist. ‘The more I struggled and strived to make the marketing messages stick,’ he says ruefully, ‘the less I took my own children out to play!’
His feelings of unease returned… and we’ll have to wait for the film to find out how he dealt with them.