As usual, this Black Friday was one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Across the United States, stores were thronged with avid shoppers looking for big bargains and holiday deals. REI is a retailer of outdoor clothing and equipment. Like many companies, it could have expected huge sales on Black Friday. But on Black Friday this year REI closed for business. Just as it did last year, it closed all of its stores, distribution centers and even its online store. Instead, REI promoted its OptOutside initiative.
Rather than packing its stores full of bargain hunters, REI said no to its staff working on Black Friday; no to them missing out on time with family and friends, and no to a day locked in malls, or on screens, hunting for goods they may not even need. Following the success of the 2015 launch campaign, with OptOutside, REI invited us to join them in the great outdoors “in our parks, on the trails, in the mountains and on the water”. They asked us to spend Black Friday reconnecting with nature and each other. They know that the benefits of doing that for you and your family are endless. They’re not alone.
For the past year I’ve been Chairman of the International Advisory Board for Unilever’s Dirt is Good (DiG) Campaign. The Board includes experts in child development, nutrition, physical activity and play. Collectively, we are working on ways to deepen understanding of the importance of ‘real play’ among parents, educators and governments. DiG is part of a long-standing commitment to child development by OMO, Unilever’s leading home detergent brand. The campaign now has a particular focus on championing the benefits of outdoor play.
Currently play is not a priority in families, schools or public policy. As part of the DiG campaign, OMO conducted a survey of 12,000 parents across the world. It found that children typically spend less time outdoors now than the average maximum-security prisoner. On most days in the US, for example, one in ten children spend no time at all playing outdoors. There are various reasons for this ‘play deficit’. Some adults see play as a pleasant relaxation for children but don’t attach any importance to it: others see it as an actual waste of time. In the bustle of busy lives, play can be squeezed out by other factors too: parental anxiety for children’s safety, lack of good outdoor places to play; an increased focus on driving children to succeed; longer school days and the pressures of home work and testing. And then there are the rival attractions of digital culture, including hours spent indoors every day on video games and social media.
Research in many fields shows that real play is not a waste of time. On the contrary, it is critical to children’s natural development and a primary way that they learn about themselves and the world around them. Play is how children develop their powers of imagination, on their own and with peers and parents. It helps them to explore their relationships with other people; learn to give and take, to test boundaries and discover what happens if they overstep them.
Outdoor play in particular is often active and physical. It exercises the body, helps children sleep well and connects them with the natural world. Playfulness is an essential part of creativity in general, not only for children but in adult life too. That’s why making time for play – whether in a playground, park, forest or your own backyard – can reconnect us all with what truly matters – other people, nature, and, why not, just having fun.
For all these reasons, I’m also a strong advocate for Outdoor Classroom Day, which is now celebrated by hundreds of thousands of schools across the world and takes places next on May 18, 2017. Like #OptOutside, Outdoor Classroom Day, promotes the benefits of learning and play outside the classroom in the great outdoors. It shows that nature is a powerful and dynamic resource for stimulating curiosity, personal learning and social development.
So what can we do promote the importance of play in our own and our children’s lives? Parents have essential roles in encouraging and facilitating their children’s play, and especially in giving them permission to play outdoors as well as indoors. Not everyone has a great park on their doorstep or access to safe places to play – and this is something that has to be addressed in urban neighborhoods especially. Policy makers and planners society needs to think creativity and urgently about providing more and better spaces that are dedicated to outdoor activities. Where children do have access to parks, gardens, urban farms, woodland and countryside, there are huge benefits for them and for the well being of their communities in getting outdoors to explore and play.
I said that REI is not alone in encouraging people to get back outdoors. They’re really not. From brands to governments, schools and NGOs, organizations of all sorts have critical roles in supporting play. Almost 6 million people and nearly 500 organizations chose to #OptOutside this Black Friday. The initiative is supported by the YMCA, Children & Nature Network, American Youthworks, even retailers in the same market, like Patagonia. They are creating a movement — a movement that is stronger because they are working together with a shared belief and shared goal. This is how change happens. While REI is reclaiming the outdoors, at Dirt is Good, we too are on a shared mission to reclaim the natural rhythms of childhood and the essential place of real play.
Sir Ken Robinson is Chair of the OMO “Dirt is Good” International Advisory Board. For more ideas on how to get your children playing outside, go to www.dirtisgood.com.
To find out more about #OptOutside, visit www.rei.com/opt-outside.