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Go and take a few risks, kids
Kids at play at Woodman Point. Picture: Steve Ferrier/The West Australian

Australia Day is easily the most culturally challenging event in the calendar.

Talkback hosts know they can push a couple of simple buttons and have the airwaves erupt and the major daily newspapers can count on a few obvious themes driving a load of colour, noise, movement and controversy.

The usual memes are all there and the fault line that separates nationalism and jingoism starts to generate some serious tremors.

It's a good time for a bit of cultural navel gazing whatever your angle.

But as far as Australian icons go, it's pretty hard to go past a scabby-kneed, wildly grinning kid somersaulting into a creek or flying off a rope swing.

It's about as Australian as it gets.

After all we are a country and culture that has long prided itself on the centrality of the Australian environment to the formation of individual character and identity.

The absolute centrality of country to all of the indigenous nations highlights, at the very least, an ancient parallel narrative.

Certainly the first generation of Australian-born children of convicts, soldiers, emancipists and free settlers, known collectively as the currency lads and lasses, were widely recognised as being taller, fitter and healthier than their British-born counterparts.

This was a source of considerable pride and provided the first green shoots of Australian nationalism.

The difference between those from the colony and the mother country was essentially the amount of time spent outdoors actively engaged in the environment.

More often than not this was in the form of unstructured, child-directed activities or as most of us know it - mucking around outside.

The reality that we in Australia, and much of the developed world, now face is that our children are more homogenised than they have ever been.

They are essentially all sitting inside staring at a screen of some description.

The long-term impacts of this change in the nature of childhood are not yet fully understood, it is only over the past decade that we, as a society, have started to clearly recognise that we have an issue.

What is becoming abundantly clear is the correlation between the decrease in unstructured outdoor play and increasing rates of childhood obesity, childhood depression, the diagnosis of unprecedented medical conditions and a more general disconnect from the world outside.

That quintessentially Australian kid, often barefoot, raucous and a bit sun frazzled is getting harder to find.

Research has long highlighted the importance of nature play or outdoor unstructured play to the development of children's imaginations and their decision making, conflict resolution and risk assessment abilities.

These are all crucial elements of the type of growing medium required for the development of resilient, engaged and creative children and young adults.

What is potentially more pressing are concerns being raised by early childhood educators about unprecedented physical development issues that are preventing preschoolers and Year 1s from learning basics such as handwriting.

A teacher who contacted Nature Play WA recently offered one theory that she said was gaining credence among teachers.

As children are doing less climbing, wrestling and carrying sticks and other important cargo around; core muscle development and strength is compromised, leading to slumping or an inability to maintain the correct posture required to develop effective handwriting techniques.

It is also worth noting that for the first time in history, geography, and to an extent socio-economic status, is also largely irrelevant. It doesn't particularly matter if that child is sitting in front of a screen in Jigalong, Manjimup or Doubleview.

A range of technological, societal and cultural influences have meant the age of the electronic babysitter in the form of the ubiquitous pixelated screen is now well and truly upon us.

Concern over the developmental and behavioural impacts of this more sedentary lifestyle, one that is largely divorced from the natural world, has driven the nature play movement.

Raising those concerns in the various public forums is an essential first step but no amount of collective hand-wringing is going to get our kids outside climbing trees, terrorising insects and building great edifices of the imagination.

What we have to do as parents, grandparents, carers, aunties, uncles and friends is to provide our children with the sort of opportunities to interact with the natural world that has been the birth right of all children through human history.

This is true if the wilderness our intrepid explorers are discovering is deep in the heart of a national park, the scrubland at the end of a suburban street or the secret cubby behind the she-oaks in the backyard.

In fact if there is one thing that has become abundantly clear it is that for the most part the simplest option has much to offer.

By not being overly prescriptive in the play activity, something as simple as a dead tree demands an investment of imagination and a child's imagination remains one of the more powerful transformative tools on the planet.

Kids have been falling out of trees since the two first became acquainted and learning ways to avoid the sickly lurch and grab is the building block of risk assessment and risk management . . . if there is no risk there is no development of risk management skills.

So how about we try to put aside some of the jingoistic rubbish that gets off the leash at this time of the year and do something that is truly culture affirming and of this place.

Tell the small folks to bugger off outside and make a nuisance of themselves.

*Paul Jarvis works for NaturePlay WA