The city of Melbourne on a Sunday night appeared hardly any less busy than usual. The CBD was buzzing with people just finishing a long day of shopping, heading out for a bite to eat, or meeting up with friends. There was plenty to do, I supposed, but as I made my way up and down crowded footpaths I could not help but wonder if any of the people around me were outside simply for the sake of being, well, outside. The streets were besieged with flickering electric shop signs and the flashing advertisements of bus shelters, attempting to lure me off the street or sell me something that would accomplish the same end. The world seems to want us to be indoors. It seems to be the focal point of our lives. Especially the lives of children, of which I saw few while walking the streets – though it was barely after 7pm.
It is often said that kids these days spend too much time indoors. In fact, it has been said for some time now. I remember hearing such things when I was a child – comments about ‘couch-potatoes’ and concerns over the growing popularity of video games. It seems a child’s life has become increasingly associated with four walls, artificial light, and inertia. When I was younger I felt this animosity was the product of a generational gap – nothing to be concerned about, the oldies just didn’t get that the times were changing. After all, gyms are indoors and electronic media is ‘stimulating’, so we’re still healthy right? I mean, kids will be fine – they’re safer at home anyway… right?
Wrong. Evidence is rapidly accumulating to suggest that a life spent indoors is far from worry-free. In fact, it’s worrisome. The outdoors offers a range of benefits for developing children that are quickly becoming displaced from their young lives. The list is a long one and the negative consequences of an indoor lifestyle equally as numerous, with things like depression, anxiety, heart disease, obesity, and ADHD ranking high among them.
Despite this saddening reality, I couldn’t help but be excited as I walked up Collins Street on this particular night. After all, I was there to meet the marketing director of my all-time favourite product: Nature. Recently, the issue of the ‘indoors’ has burst into the spotlight thanks to an insightful new documentary out of the UK. The film, aptly named ‘Project Wild Thing’, follows concerned father/film-maker David Bond as he attempts to make the outdoors more appealing to younger generations. The film’s success has been staggering, and David has become the head of what can only be described as a movement – the Wild Network, a vast and rapidly growing consortium of groups and individuals dedicated to rewilding kids everywhere. It’s an inspiring story, and one that resonates strongly with the team at Wild Melbourne.
Meeting David, I was immediately aware of his warmth and enthusiasm. He’s a passionate guy, as you would guess of any film-maker, but perhaps more so due to his desire to change the direction our societies are headed in. As for our own direction, well, we headed to the pub. In fact, in keeping with the theme of David’s film we made our way to Ponyfish Island, the iconic Southbank bar located under Pedestrian Bridge – no four walls there, that’s for sure.
It was David’s first time 'down under' and he was here at the invitation of Parks and Leisure Australia, a group committed to supporting all things outdoors and which began as the Victorian Tree Planter’s Association way back in 1926. On the way to the bar he described what life had been like following the huge success of the film. Finding himself at the head of a rapidly growing movement had come as a surprise, and in a way, he said he felt unqualified for the responsibility of heading such a large and expanding organisation. After all, he is a film-maker and figures he should probably be focusing on his next piece of work. To that end, he said that they were looking for someone to take over the administration of things. As of publishing this article, that lucky individual is Mark Sears.
So how did David – and his family – come to be the stars of Project Wild Thing, and the subsequent figureheads of a now global movement to encourage children to get outdoors and into nature? Sitting down at the bar he tells me:
“We didn’t have any money… we just said, “look, we want to launch a campaign, and it’s going to go nation-wide”, you know, and we were ballsy – we made out that it was going to be bigger than we knew it was… we were over-over-confident, and that was helpful…"
The film itself tells much of the story, but as David explained there’s a lot more to any documentary than makes the final cut.
“We shot about 160 hours of footage to get our 90 minute film… if you watched it all it would be exhausting and boring… there were lots of dead-ends we went down… you’re trying to find the heart of the story and kind of pruning away at the stuff that’s less important…”
Importantly, he credits the help of others for the film’s success.
“I sort of launched into it and thought I could get away with doing it myself and then very quickly realized that actually, there are brilliant people out there who spend all their days marketing stuff… And actually I was really moved by how – especially the younger people in that advertising world in the UK – really responded to having a challenge to sell something so generic and huge as the idea of nature. You know they really got stuck in… it would be really great to try and reach out to the advertising community in Australia… you’d be surprised at the reaction.”
And what of Australia? Is our sunburnt nation, so far from the seat of the Commonwealth, experiencing the same childhood woes as are depicted in David’s film? How do our countries compare?
“The first thing I’d say is that the problems that we’ve got are very close – our similarities, in terms of the issue, are much greater than any differences we might have. For example, we’re in a situation now where the UNICEF report points to Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. as ranking way down in terms of reporting childhood happiness, and that’s definitely a function of the barriers being very similar.
The barriers that we share are, for example, fear of stranger danger being blown way out of proportion… the rise of screen time and the commercialisation of childhood, the rise of traffic, …educational problems; so is the natural world being withdrawn from the education environment. These are all things we share. And then I think the special barriers that we have in the U.K. are [because] we’ve got this kind of weird relationship with the land where we’re not supposed to be on it because it’s owned by the Queen, or the Church, or someone else, an aristocrat. At least you guys don’t have that - but you’ve got something similar in a weird way - which is the industrialised farms and the mining people kind of fencing off stuff.”
On that note, David speaks of what he perceives as a sort of perversion of the Australian way of life. As someone with an outside perspective he has noticed a change in how Australia portrays itself to the world.
“The Australian myth is actually more bound up with your ‘wildness’ than is currently talked about… it has morphed into this kind of frontier myth… American style growth around the coasts and then the very American mineral-extraction dream, kind of gold-rush-mentality. And actually [that’s] not the Australian myth, the Australian myth is really: independent, individual farmers and families deeply, deeply connected to the natural world and able to survive in it...
Economically you could make the argument that it would screw up your tourism if it stops being the case that there’s this sense of freedom, and openness, and wildness that Australia broadcasts to the world…
We’ve talked to lots of sports people in Australia and they’re worrying about how active sports are dropping off … they’re beginning to realise what made Australia a really great sporting country twenty years ago wasn’t sport - it was outdoor life. It was the fact that people were super active, resilient, strong-minded, resourceful…”
Indeed, his insights into the complexity of relationships between people and the natural world speak of hours spent in conversation with a diverse sample of humanity – such experience one would expect from the marketing director for Nature. Notably, David spoke of how important it is to recognise that not all people feel the same about these issues.
“I reckon there are three kinds of people. There are people who are motivated by the environment… and for them the best argument is to say “the environment is going to be screwed in fifty years’ time unless children connect”… but then there’s a whole bunch of people who that just doesn’t wash for them… and for them, they split into two groups… either they are kind of prospector-minded, so you say to them “did you know if your kid climbs a tree it’s more likely to be a successful entrepreneur when it grows up because it makes them tough?”… And then I think the third kind are people who are about understanding place, so you talk to them about traditions – human traditions – that would get lost… I think that’s one of the biggest insights we’ve had, that not all people are the same.”
As for himself, David has an obvious sense of wonder when it comes to the natural world. He explains his excitement at seeing his first Ibis in the city a few days earlier. Indeed, his stories of Australian wildlife remind me of how important it can be to take the time to stop and appreciate the things around you – even if you’ve long come to accept them as a part of the mundane and ordinary.
“I was sitting on the tarmac in Brisbane today and there were these swallows, and I’d never seen this kind of swallow… amazing looking things, and they were nesting under the jet way… and I was staring out, and they were firing the engines up and these things were coming past the window catching insects… nobody really seemed to be looking out but I was thinking ‘if my kids were here this would be a definite moment of “check this out!”’… There’s something about having your eyes open to that kind of stuff that is really powerful, and if you get that opening before the age of seven, according to the studies, you always have it…”
In the film, David spends some time with former Greenpeace CEO, Chris Rose. For Rose, it’s not enough to simply get children outdoors. In order to get them to care about nature he believes you must engage them on an intellectual level. I asked David if his time spent as the marketing director for Nature had led him to a similar opinion.
“I agree with him and I also, a little bit, worry about what he says… his line is: “it’s not enough just to get children outside. You need to get them outside and you need to engage them in an educational mental way with the world around them”… like he did with me – showed me all these beautiful kinds of grasses and the rich tapestry – and it really worked on me.
And then I’ve done a lot of testing of that concept with parents and for some parents it’s great, they love the idea… and for others it’s a real barrier, they’re like: “they’ve been at school all week and now you want me to teach them this stuff as well”, and also they’re scared because they don’t know it. They feel threatened by the idea that there’s a lot of knowledge out there that they don’t have access to and they maybe don’t want to admit that to their children.
So I agree with him, but again, with the proviso that there are different people out there, and I will always say it’s better to have children outdoors then indoors whatever they’re doing, even if they’re hanging around by the chip shop in the city. At least they’re outdoors, they’re moving, they’re physically active, and there’s a better chance that, if they’re out there, they might end up somewhere green, and if they end up somewhere green there’s a bigger likelihood that they might end up interested…”
So what is stopping kids these days from getting that crucial “opening”? In part, David thinks the blame may rest on the obvious commercial factor that is ever more present in our children’s lives.
“It’s really hard to sell children stuff when they’re outdoors… If you can, as a marketer, get children indoors looking at screens, looking at printed materials, keeping their heads down, you’ve got a much better chance of selling them stuff.”
But, as he professes with a very genuine sense of melancholy, the growing impacts of marketing and media do not just affect the youngest members of our families.
“You collect all this stuff, and it just creates more anxiousness, and more of a sense of needing more – the more you have, the more you need. You’re kind of loading screens and toys and stuff onto your kids almost to kind of say sorry for not having the parental-time. Because of course, that’s the other big thing, is that we’ve been sold the idea that we need to be busy to the point which we can’t spend time with our children doing the stuff they really love… and that’s a bummer, not just for them – that’s a real bummer for us. You just get rid of all of the good stuff in life which is just free.”
Yet, despite this, David does not appear hostile to the people who create the ads that bombard our every waking moment. After all, it was with the help of many such people that Project Wild Thing’s success was made possible.
"Actually, I feel sorry for them, you know. When you think about the way they spend their lives, they walk into work and someone says to them, “Okay, I own you now, your creative juices are going to be directed towards selling product ‘X’” – whatever it is, you don’t have any say in it, it doesn’t matter how you feel about it, you’ve just got to shift it, sell it, flog it. And they’re brilliant at it…”
Of course, that’s exactly why Project Wild Thing exists: to offer another message to children and families, and it’s time that message came to Australia. Already there are numerous individuals and groups across this big-wide-land that are dedicating themselves to the task of getting kids outdoors. So what would an Australian Wild Network look like?
“Really small, incredibly light. Basically the idea is you want to show the government, and the people, and the press that there’s a ton of interest in this issue. You need to show that. That’s the benefit of the Wild Network… if you make your manifesto statement that children ought to be outdoors more, and you don’t necessarily stress why that is – we all know there are a million reasons why that’s important – then loads of people join in. Which is really cool…
It needs to be led by a consortium in Australia, that’s what needs to happen…Try and get one state-wide or nation-wide bigger organisation… somebody big to recognise what we’ve done in the U.K., to help get this going, at which point they could provide some heavy lifting, some people, some PR… we’ve already got the core of a Wild Network growing… weirdly on a U.K. server, and we could just easily hive that off and pass it over… the whole idea is it should be an international thing… it’s just saying “can you sign our manifesto pledge?”, “can you believe in this issue?”, and if you can just lend your name – it’s a kind of movement… We’ve realised you don’t need to sell it as necessarily too worthy a cause, it’s got to be a fun and exciting mission.”
So there it is. The movement is coming. Already, a number of Australian organisations, including Parks and Leisure Australia, the Australian Camps Association, Nature Play WA and QLD, Outdoors Victoria, and many others are signing up to take the pledge.