By Neil Reeves

Head of Environment and Community

Imagine being five years old in August 2020… No really, imagine it.

You have spent the last five months in the midst of the worst public health emergency we have faced in a generation. That is just short of 10% of your life so far. You had only really started school last September and had made lots of friends, only to be ripped from them in March for a life in lockdown with your siblings and parents. Parents, who initially were trying to work out where the next toilet roll was coming from and later whether they would still have a job or a home when this was over.

Life in lockdown was okay to start with, it was a novelty… Daddy had started to make his own bread and mummy had become obsessed with checking something called “clicky collect.” It was fun for a few days, until the boredom kicked in and you started the almost constant squabble with your little brother and sister. As adults battled with the reality of spending all day, every day under the same roof with other adults, negotiated the use of the kitchen table and came to terms with the dreaded video call, who can blame you for getting grouchy?

The daily exercise was fun: you noticed all sorts of new flowers appearing in the cracks between paving slabs and the birds started to sing very loudly as they competed for your attention with that funny man telling a story every day on the television. The skies seemed bluer than they used to be, without those straight white clouds that come out of the back of aeroplanes, and the trees seemed greener, now the leaves weren’t covered in that black stuff that comes out of the back of cars. The problem with the daily exercise was that you had to “keep going” and “this is exercise, we are not allowed to stop and play”. You didn’t like those words….. “we are not allowed to stop and play”.

   

Then came the rise of the COVID robots. You found them quite amusing to begin with as the same ones walked past the windows at the same time every day. You even painted a rainbow and put it in the window to make them smile, or were they for someone else? Then they started to get a bit scary. They started to wear masks over their faces and stand in very long lines outside shops. They all stood the same distance apart from each other like a row of dominoes ready to be pushed over. You thought they were probably waiting for a squirt of that smelly stuff that Mummy called “gold dust”.

We are still in the middle of a global pandemic. The dreaded COVID-19 is scary; I’m petrified and I am an adult. I’m scared of the virus, I’m scared of the economic impact, I’m scared of the mental health impact and actually, I’m really scared of being scared. We have to show a brave face, don’t we? “We’ve got this”, “together we can defeat the invisible enemy” and “just got keep being one of those lerts”

So, how can we remind ourselves and our children that the world remains full of beauty, magic and fun? The answer I think lies in play. Not computers, not tablets and not electronic toys. Simple, old fashioned, outdoor play. I’m talking about climbing trees, rolling down hills, building dens, playing pirates and I’m talking adults as well as children. Watching someone or filming someone play is not playing. Please make the time, we need it now more than ever.

It is National Play Day on Wednesday 5th August. I urge you all to find or rediscover the wonder and excitement in play.

It is as easy as going for a walk with no destination - no time constraints and no expectations. Just think a little outside of normal and let the natural world inspire you all.

Times are strange and you may be concerned about a visit to the countryside, but believe me, there is no safer place to be. Things get complicated when it involves going indoors with other people, so get your boots and coats on folks. The UK is full of outdoor recreation providers who are working around the clock to make sure our green and blue spaces are as accessible and safe as can be.  

This virus (probably more so, the lockdown) has had a huge impact on us physically, mentally and emotionally. I have spent nights awake worrying, I’ve struggled to focus at times, had very strange sleep patterns, ate a bit too much, drunk a bit too much and worked a bit too much.

People are desperate for an escape - we can see that in the sheer determination to go on a “summer holiday”. They want to escape the memories of lockdown and living in the dread of a pandemic. People want to be happy and feel happiness. Play is central to this emotion in adults as well as children and we can find that escape and creativity in the simplest of games or adventures.

Outdoor play improves our physical health. It depends on the game obviously, but climbing tree forts, chasing pirates or building castles in the sky burns a lot of calories you know, not to mention the Vitamin D. The emotional benefits of play are well documented and in the words of Brene Brown “The opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression”.

The world is a pretty stressful place right now. We need to somewhat shield our children from this, but they are feeling it too. Playing boosts resilience and is a fantastic coping mechanism for stress, anxiety and all those emotions that we feel as we slowly return to our normal daily lives, go back to work, school or visit our loved ones, from whom we have been separated for so long.

There is always an element of risk to play, whether that is making new friends, a risk of falling or simply looking silly. Overcoming these challenges only brings a sense of accomplishment that leads to higher self-esteem. Who cares if you look silly? We’ve all been walking around in masks and dodging each other in supermarket aisles in some strange dance for the last few months. I think it counts as drama.

2020 has given us a new found love and respect for nature and particularly physical exercise in nature. We all fell in love with our local park, footpath or lake on our daily walk during lockdown. Now we have a little more freedom, we must use these places to learn about nature, get inspiration from nature, but most of all, play in nature. There is always time to stop and play.