The state of (adventure) play

“I believe the children are our future.”

Sure, Whitney Houston may not have gone on to be the greatest role model of all time, but her lyrics hold truths far greater than kitschiness.

“Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

But I wonder what are we teaching them that will give them the ability to lead? And, does anyone care?

Check those kids all setting themselves up for thumb arthritis as they ‘play’ on screens. Worse, check out all the dads (and it is usually the dads, be honest) at the playground tapping away on screens – “just getting off this last email” – while their kids stare in wonderment at a climbing apparatus.

“Dad, what do I do here…?”

Silence. Tap, tap, tap. “Uh, two secs, be there in a tick…”

And the kid looks to Dad and learns what is important.

That apathy toward physical play in the outdoors is not just centred in the family, it extends to the corporate world – even when that corporate world makes a buck from outdoor play. IMG_0100

“We don’t make enough money from children’s products to warrant getting involved”, was the response from one well-known adventure and outdoor gear retail chain when approached about the possibility of getting involved in a new Kid’s Adventure Festival. Full disclosure, Adventure Types has been contracted to help design and curate this festival by Mount Baw Baw Alpine Resort, in Victoria.

Firstly, as an outdoor retailer are you not serious about fostering a culture of outdoor play and engagement in the bush? Isn’t that the bedrock of your business plan; more people playing more often in the Great Outdoors?

Basically, they said we don’t want to grow that market. Do the kids attending the festival not have parents – the real purchasing decision makers outdoor clothing and kit)? Will these children not grow into adults who are potential purchasers of your adult range? Customer for life and all that jazz?

Even the devil in a drug dealer (most of whom don’t have marketing or business degrees) will tell you; get ‘em while they’re young.

Keeping in mind that we had approached said brand on a zero cash investment basis. None. Not a dollar would need to be passed to the Kids’ Adventure Festival, rather we sought logistical and communications assistance.

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That particular retailer’s competitors were no better; a flat out ‘not interested’ from one. And from another – one linked to a youth organisation purely dedicated to getting kids into nature – no reply at all.

To say I was disappointed that three of this nation’s major outdoor retailers had zero inclination to even discuss becoming involved in encouraging children into the outdoors is an understatement. As a parent of two young girls whom I hope to grow into nature-seeking and active adults, I was aghast.

And while this may come off as sour grapes, it seems our kid-focused initiative is not the first to meet a muted response from the corporates in the adventure sector.

Speaking with a manager in a major Victorian Government Department responsible for a large swath of outdoor recreation responsibilities, the story is the familiar. This individual has repeatedly gone to the commercial sector for engagement in projects focused on encouraging kids into the outdoors, with solid foundations of mutual benefit and low investment (“You help us encourage kids into the outdoors, you reap the commercial benefit now and in the future”). And to his astonishment, and now jaded acceptance, the answer has been always been no. Clothed in jargonistic talk of profit share pies, margin squeeze and company benefit that no answer looks a lot like the Emperors New Clothes.

Maybe the suited folk working for adventure companies do not live their brands? Perhaps they are not yet parents? Maybe as tykes they needed to be taken to a kids’ adventure festival?

The conversation with the government rep delved deeper into the state of the adventure sector and the unfortunate fragmentation that stymies any cohesive growth, not just in youth adventure, but across all streams and in all layers including governmental, services, retail, wholesale and education.

In this instance, however, the Kids’ Adventure Festival initiative is one that looks to not only expose kids to adventure play in the outdoors, it also looks to equip parents with the knowledge, tools and inspiration to encourage their offspring to go and run wild. Because it’s good for them.

Initially the idea was a simple, small one though quickly we realised the potential for providing meaningful, effective long-term doorways and pathways for children to develop habits of active lifestyles in the outdoors. And so it developed into an attempt to partner with as many outdoor organisations with an interest and a drive to see kids engaging in our Great Outdoors as possible.

If executed correctly the Festival would positively influence the physical and mental health and wellbeing of our youth both immediately and well into the future. Indeed, for the term of their natural lives. Not everyone will become a Bear Grylls, but that is not the point. However, an appreciation of what it feels like to climb a tree, scale a rock and sleep out in a tent could led further down the track to an adult who has at their disposal the wonderful tools provided by nature that allow us to better cope with emabattled states of mind and physical health so common in the modern world.

The author, Richard Louv, in his seminal book Last Child In The Woods, speaks of Nature Deficit Disorder – where a lack of contact with nature increases the potential for childhood depression, obesity and other wellbeing issues. Tim Gill, an advocate for exposing children to risk and outdoor play, recently presented to a Outdoors Victoria gathering. His thoughts on the importance of outdoor play and childhood adventure and how it engenders better risk management and resilience in children as they journey through adolescence to adulthood, are well regarded internationally. Indeed internationally there are now dedicated movements such as Leave No Child Inside working to reconnect children with nature (see also Get Children Outdoors and Children and Nature and Take A Child Outside).

Importantly, as Richard Louv argues in this piece, it is not just children with ‘outdoorsy’ parents who need to be reconnected – perhaps even more importantly it is the children of parents who themselves are not connected with nature that must be also focused on.

It is with the ideas of thought leaders like Richard and Tim front of mind that the inaugural Kids’ Adventure Festival will take place in summer 2014 on top of Mount Baw Baw. Corporate involvement or otherwise.

Rather than simply having a camp out for the sake of it, the event will give kids exposure to nature in a controlled setting, one that with the assistance of those partners who do get on board (and it would be remiss to say that many NGO, government and some commercial businesses such as Melbourne’s Child, are discussing involvement), will hopefully plant in the next generation the seed of our need to be connected to nature. For our own good. For the good of our children. If only the big brands woke up they’d realise that such an event could be for the good of their own cash registers, too. In business parlance, I believe it’s called a win-win.

- Chris Ord, parent of two and Director/Producer at Adventure Types
chris@adventuretypes.com
 043 0376621

3 Comments

  1. As an outdoor educator, this is a barrier I constantly come up against. Unfortunately, even those organisations who specialise in taking out young people into the outdoors are being forced to reduce “risk”, both real and perceived, and move programmes away from the wilderness and toward more controlled environments. This shift is a response to sky-rocketing insurance premiums and a risk-aversion inherited from parents who know no better. Just as our immune system and musculature grow stronger in response to measured stress and fail in its absence, our children (and therefore our society) grow weaker the more they are insulated from risk and causality.

    Thanks very much for taking a stance on this and highlighting the weakness within our retail sector. It makes their ridiculous pricing all the more unbearable.

  2. Drew Cummings

    Great piece Chris! And yes, despite my love of my kids and the outdoors I am occasionally ‘guilty as charged’ of the phone use while ‘playing’ with the kids! Thanks for the great reminder! As a result, I’m staying tuned and looking forward to the Kids Adventure Festival and will be there with bells on!!! Cheers!
    P.S. To any organisation reading this, that are considering backing this event, I can almost guarantee my (and my kids) increasing loyalty to your brand. If you back family friendly events, we’ll back you!

  3. We’ve noticed the same, and it’s worrying. That’s why we setup the Youth4Youth Challenge to help parents encourage their kids to get out for a day as well as help their peers who can’t afford such a luxury by raising money for organisations that assist these less fortunate kids.

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