Sticks, crabs and mud – Talking play with Laura Bingham
Profession: Adventurer, speaker, explorer
Mother to Ran (2)
Laura opened our new play space at Sacrewell https://www.sacrewell.org.uk/, so we decided to ask her some questions about her own experience of outdoor play.
Remember playing outside? What are your strongest memories of outdoor play as a child?
The first thing that comes to mind is how my Dad used to mow the lawn in stripes and how the mower would leave these lumps of grass in lines and I would challenge myself to crawl from one side of the lawn to the other side across these lumps and stripes. A simple thing like mown grass can be so much fun. I still love the smell of it.
I also remember being in the car and looking out for trees lined up in a perfect four. I was convinced that they were portals into the fairy kingdom.
What is the riskiest thing you ever did as a child?
Well, drawing on the nicely painted walls of the house didn’t go down well – that was pretty risky. But in terms of physical risk…when I was six years old, we started visiting my family in South Africa roughly every two years and I would go microlighting and wild water rafting. That’s quite a risky thing for a small child. But I always felt safe with my parents looking after me.
How did those childhood experiences shape you as an adult?
Funnily enough when I was 15 my Dad announced we were going to South Africa again and I thought we would be better off spending that money on a TV! So you can grow up having all these amazing outdoor experiences and still prefer a TV when you hit your teens.
I think who I am today was born more out of trauma than my experiences growing up. I had a really idyllic childhood and then hit a rocky patch in my late teens, which sculpted me to really try and find myself and push my boundaries. But obviously being exposed to microlighting and white water rafting and elephants at a young age gives you a confidence in the outdoors. It gives you the confidence that you won’t die doing those things. Though there is a huge leap from doing it with your parents to doing it alone.
Why does outdoor play matter?
It just stimulates kids so much more than a TV ever can, but in a really relaxing, calming way. Whenever my son is crying it is usually indoors and all I have to do is take him outside and he is immediately distracted by the plants and the sky and the bees. He never has paddies when he is playing outside. Only when he has been in front of the TV and we take him away from it.
We just spent a month on an island, as a family – we didn’t have any problems. He loved playing with the sand and the crabs. We didn’t have any TV or anything to entertain him other than sticks and water and crabs. Children can entertain themselves just as easily outside with nature as they can inside. And it’s a much more healthy and wholesome stimulation, I think.
Based on your travels where have you experienced the best play opportunities for children?
It’s quite obvious even for someone who hasn’t travelled much when you see documentaries of children in indigenous communities – they are always running around and laughing and making mischief with sticks and stones and stuff. And I think that has been the case in the villages I have visited too. Though to be fair, in a lot of poorer communities they will have TVs – they will have a TV before they have a loo! – but they only have three channels so there isn’t much to entertain a child.
What obstacles to children playing freely outdoors do you observe in the UK?
My instant answer would be other people and their judgement as to whether you are a good parent or not. There seems to be this health and safety culture that frowns upon parents who let their kids play freely and judge them when their child has a fall and scrapes their knee. Or makes you scared that they will go missing or be kidnapped if you don’t have your eye on them at all times.
Accessibility is also an issue. There are fewer green spaces on people’s doorsteps, especially in highly populated areas like London. And fewer local parks just a two-minute walk away like there used to be, and that’s what kids need: to play right where they live.
Where do you see opportunities? What could we do as a society to create better outdoor play for kids?
I think creating play spaces that are fun and risky, but at the same time safe and accessible are extremely good, because they help cautious parents let their kids roam and play freely because health and safety has been checked off. Parents are the gatekeepers to their children so you have to convince them first.
And we need to turn our screens off. I am almost waiting for this apocalyptic phase where all the screens go black (laughs). It’s like we need a situation where electricity is rationed like food, because the online world is almost too addictive to give up willingly. We never get the chance to be properly bored nowadays and it is only through boredom that you start thinking outside the box. Screens offer a weird kind of numbness where you are often a bit bored, but not bored enough to get provoked to invent a game or think of something else to do outside.
Maybe it’s the responsibility of parents to unplug their kids and tell them to make their own fun, but a lot of them seem just so scared of the backlash they will get.
Finally, describe your dream play space…
It would have to be something messy. I would almost like it to be a big mud pool where children can literally just dive in and be covered from head to toe in mud. And then have a shower station where they can hose off. I love water play too. I am a Pisces, so I will get into every bit of water I can find. I love how it washes over you and washes everything away. That’s one of the things I love about Sacrewell, the way you incorporated the river into the design. It is beautiful for children, and adults, to have their feet in the water and feel the rocks beneath them. So messy, water play… with a big sand-pit-beach area like the one at Sacrewell. My son and I loved it there!