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Don t forget to play
Don't forget to play

Chief executive of Nature Play WA, *Griffin Longley *remembers an active childhood and urges parents to get kids playing outside

"Get outside you lot, and make sure you are home before dark," these words rang out in every house from Esperance to Kununurra.

It was the mantra of family life and of childhood, said with such regularity that we barely registered the words - as much a part of the wallpaper of Australian life as toast and eggs, sand in your bathers and summer flies.

Kids played outside and urban adventures, suburban adventures, and country town adventures were what childhood was made of. Kids knew their local parks and streets as well as they knew their bedrooms. They knew the best trees to climb, where the dogs that bit lived, and where the mulberry trees could be found.

You didn't have to live on Cloud Street or in the pages of a Ginger Meggs cartoon to have a catalogue of stories of the things you did with your mates away from the caution of adulthood. It was just how life was.

Beaches, empty blocks, lanes, backyards, parks, swamps, creeks, and stands of bush not yet landscraped for oases of red brick and palm trees were where kids played.

So much so that when Lego was introduced here in 1962 no one thought it would take off.

Aussie kids played outside.

But times have changed. As they will. And that mantra has gone the way of the $3 fish and chip dinner - a nostalgic memory for adults to bore children with. A change in Australian culture and in the experience of childhood that have led to the formation of Nature Play WA.

Nature Play WA is a not- for-profit organisation in partnership with the Department of Sport and Recreation, supported by its Minister, Terry "Tuck" Waldron, and with the backing of the 17 founding partners including the AMA, Playgroup WA, Mentally Healthy WA, the Western Australian Primary Principals' Association and the Department of Environment and Conservation.

Our mission is to foster a return to the unstructured outdoor play that is a fundamental component of the human inheritance, and to address the modern reality that our kids spend less than two hours a day outside, less than any other generation in history, less even than prisoners in our maximum-security prisons.

Childhood is increasingly becoming an indoor experience and the effects of that are only just beginning to be understood, with a growing body of research showing the connection between unstructured outdoor play and children's healthy physical, cognitive and emotional development.

It is no coincidence nearly one quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese; 14 per cent have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder; and according to one US study the modern seven-year-old has an equivalent executive function (ability to make decisions for themselves) as the average five-year-old 40 years ago.

And the benefits of getting more kids outdoors mucking around are about much more than health. They are also about things that are harder to measure, like building connectedness to this beautiful place in which we live and to the community of which we want to be members in more than just name.

It is also about allowing kids the opportunities to take risks, build resilience and be given space to play without their imaginations being outsourced to Pixar, Disney or Nintendo.

The truth is that we are in the middle of the single biggest change in the experience of childhood the world has ever seen. For the first time in history, childhood has become a predominantly indoor, and largely sedentary experience.

You can see it on your street. Walk outside as the light starts to fade and count how many kids are walking home from the park, sweating and yelling over their shoulder to their mates. Look for them playing in yards.

Now cast your eye down the street and count how many lounge room windows are emanating the dull blue flicker of television.

There is a multitude of reasons for the shift. Digital technology has made being inside more fun for kids than ever before.

Parents have become so marinated in fear that few of us feel comfortable with our children playing unsupervised in our neighbourhoods.

Changes in family structures and work patterns mean we have little time, or energy, to go out and supervise the kind of play we all used to have and our houses have smaller gardens that make backyard play less appealing.

So play has come to be something our kids do indoors and an enormous industry has sprung up to accommodate that.

The lounge room and the home theatre are modern children's play spaces. Safe, fun, easy but devoid of the benefits of active outdoor play. But it doesn't have to be like this.

We have the great luxury of living in a State where the natural world is never far away. Parks and public open spaces of all kinds are dotted throughout our suburbs, the State is chequered with world-leading trails for walking, hiking, riding and camping and the beach or the bush are never far away.

Nature Play WA's mission is to help parents find ways to increase the amount of time they spend playing outside, because the research tells us that is good for them, it is fundamental to their development and because it is too fun to let them miss out on.

Our website (natureplaywa.org.au) has an activity finder to help parents come up with things to do, lists of places to go as a family to enjoy the great outdoors and ways to make your garden a place that invites outdoor play and much more.

We have also developed the Passport to An Amazing Childhood, filled with ideas to try, stickers, and online missions for things like climbing trees, building cubbies and swimming in the ocean.

More than 40,000 WA kids have received Nature Play passports in the past nine months and we are expanding the missions to more than 100.

We are also encouraging the creation of family nature clubs for families to meet up in natural places (beaches, national parks, on the banks of rivers) and let their kids play.

So far 17 family nature clubs have started in WA.

More than anything else, getting our kids outside is just about deciding to do it. The world has changed.

We can no longer assume that our kids are getting the outdoor play kids always had - they probably aren't. We need a concerted effort to make a place for it in their lives.

  • *15 things to do before you're 12 * *

• Climb a tree

• Build a cubbyhouse

• Camp out under the stars (even in your backyard)

• Invent a game that lasts three days

• Learn to swim

• Catch a wave (start with a small one)

• Play in a creek

• Play in the bush

• Visit a national park

• Play in the rain

• Catch a tadpole (and release it)

• Make a mud pie

• Build a sandcastle city

• Plant something and watch it grow

• Learn to ride a bike

  • *15 things to do before you're 12 * *