Springing Into Action: A guest blog by author Fiona Barker

I’m delighted today to have Fiona Barker, author of Amelie and the Great Outdoors, guest blog for me today. We’ve been talking about playing outdoors, at a time when surveys suggest that UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates (according to ‘Play in Balance’ report, 2016). A topic dear to Fiona Barker, below she outlines the ideas behind her picture book, and at the end you’ll find my review.

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Springing into Action!

It’s no coincidence that my debut picture book ‘Amelie and the Great Outdoors’ was published in the spring. What a wonderful time of year! Everything feels poised, ready to explode into exuberant life. Things are starting to warm up and it feels like a good time to be outdoors. I even went body boarding with my family in beautiful Bigbury-on-Sea in Devon at the beginning of March. I did send a little prayer of thanks to the people who invented neoprene and first turned it into boots and gloves (we did have wetsuits on too, in case anyone is imagining a family of naked nutters frolicking in the 8oC sea in nothing but boots and gloves!) It was awesome, life-affirming stuff!

It turns out that it really is. The evidence for the benefits of being outdoors is considerable. After all, 90% of the human requirement for vitamin D comes from sunlight (Hollick, 2004). And, yes, the weak, watery variety we often get in the UK still counts. Being outdoors is associated with being more active which improves cardiovascular health. And the benefits are not just physiological. In a major review, Keniger et al (2013) describe the positive psychological, cognitive and physical effects of being outside for both children and adults. Getting outdoors can improve self-esteem, mood, behaviour and cognitive function in children. The benefits of getting up and out are real.

However, there is a problem. In a large survey conducted in 2015 by the Wildlife Trusts, over a quarter of children had never played outside without an adult present, a quarter of children in the UK have never built a sandcastle and a third of children have never climbed a tree. Since the 1970s, the distance that children are able to explore unsupervised has decreased by 90% (www.wildlifetrusts.org). I am not alone in finding this incredibly sad. Sir David Attenborough, President Emeritus of The Wildlife Trusts, said:  “We will be physically, mentally and spiritually impoverished if our children are deprived of contact with the natural world. Contact with nature should not be the preserve of the privileged. It is critical to the personal development of our children.”

Of course there are many reasons why children today are playing outside less than even a generation ago. Carver et al (2007) cite perception of safety as a major factor both in terms of fear of strangers and the rise in traffic. Other activities competing for children’s attention are also big issues. In the UK, 11-15 year olds spend an average of 6.1 hours a day in front of a screen and this is rising rapidly. In the US, the figure is 7.5 hours (Sigman, 2012).

So how can we help get our children outdoors? Clearly, some of the issues are too big for us as individuals to tackle but we could all start to make small changes which could have a big impact. The Wildlife Trusts have produced a great booklet called ‘The Art of Getting Children Outdoors’. It has some fantastic practical ideas for parents who have the motivation but need some ideas for how to plan outdoor activities. Start young and develop a taste for it. There are some lovely books out there which we can read with our children to kick start a discussion around what they would like to do outside. Children who help to plan an activity are much more likely to abandon their screen-time and get outside. Fit a random act of wildness into your day. Turn over a stone to look for minibeasts, climb a tree, stop for a minute and listen for birds or feel a soft catkin. These are things that don’t cost money, they don’t require special skills and it doesn’t matter where you live. We can all help every child’s life be a bit more wild.

With thanks to Fiona Barker.

amelie and the great outdoors

Amelie and the Great Outdoors by Fiona Barker

Amelie is a girl who never goes outside. “she always stayed indoors.” Immediately the reader can see why – her room is filled with exciting things, from the computer to the toy box, doll’s house, and books. She labels what’s outside her window as the ‘Great Outdoors’ but doesn’t think it looks up to much.

One day a little bird arrives on her windowsill and implores her to experience the different parts of the outdoors with him. But she refuses. He succinctly and sweetly exhorts the beauties of the different seasons – the lambs in spring, the beach in summer, kite-flying in autumn, as well as much more, but Amelie always finds an excuse not to venture out.

The bird gives up, but when he doesn’t return to convince her, Amelie goes outside in search of him. And finds that the Great Outdoors is very pleasant after all.

Amelie’s main reason for not going outside is fear of both big things and small things, and the fear of feeling uncomfortable. And it’s exactly that which the book sets out to do – to challenge the comfort zone and to sell the virtues of being outside. By the end Amelie feels and looks healthier, and she loves being outside.

The story is very simple, but very encouraging for small children, and certainly shows the outdoors in a glorious light through the different seasons and possibilities for things to do. Rosie Brooks’s illustrations are playful, familiar, and drawn with swift pen strokes that give the feeling of movement and gaiety.

A delightful book that inspires outdoors play – even if that means just reading a book on the grass! You can buy it here.

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Holick, M. F. (2004). Sunlight and vitamin D for bone health and prevention of autoimmune diseases, cancers, and cardiovascular disease. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 80(6), 1678S-1688S.

Keniger, L. E., Gaston, K. J., Irvine, K. N., & Fuller, R. A. (2013). What are the Benefits of Interacting with Nature? International journal of environmental research and public health, 10(3), 913-935.

Carver, A., Timperio, A., & Crawford, D. (2008). Playing it safe: The influence of neighbourhood safety on children’s physical activity—A review. Health & place, 14(2), 217-227.

Sigman, A. (2012). Time for a view on screen time. Archives of disease in childhood, 2012.