Unsafe Space

The Gair Rhydd Column: Doing the dirty

British children now spend less time outside than British prisoners, and it sucks.

Over the Easter break I suffered from what is occasionally identified as ‘the kissing disease’. Unfortunately this is not an ailment that causes those around you to find you deliciously kissable, nor does it see you overcome with the yearning to kiss anybody else. The kissing disease instead confines you to your bed with a throat so constricted it is near-impossible to breathe, swells your glands to the size of two small planets, and a gives you a temperature so sweltering that absolutely, categorically nobody wants to kiss you.

If you’d have asked me a few weeks prior to my contraction of glandular fever, I’d have been delighted at the prospect of spending two weeks confined to my bed, with nothing to do but eat, sleep and consecutively watch all three series of Gavin and Stacey (plus Christmas specials) without being judged and/or disturbed.

However, being confined to bed for a sustained period of time is no fun at all. In reality, it actually only takes 48 hours to become infuriated with not knowing what happened during THAT fishing trip and for the initial disbelief at James Corden’s 2007 weight to wear off.

So then, a couple of days in, having exhausted the ‘British Sitcoms’ category on Netflix and having caught chlamydia from just watching the new series of Geordie Shore, I was desperate for something new to pass the time. Queue, old family videos.

Aside from being repulsed by what a genuinely horrid child I was (I was fashioning a standard 90s bowl cut with pink-and-green floral trousers from GAP, and was regularly caught attempting to push my sister down stairs whilst humming the tune to The Ketchup Song). I couldn’t help but notice the evident differences between myself as a child fifteen years ago, and children of today.

After mentioning this to my parents at dinner, conversation turned to their own childhood, and what it was like to grow up in the seventies. They chuckled at the comprehensive absence of health and safety when they were young. A typical Saturday afternoon for a child under ten in the North would be spent frolicking in building sites, swinging from scaffolding and playing piggy in the middle with bricks. Bricks. You’d go out across town for the day and your parents wouldn’t worry about not hearing from you until midnight, and if you hadn’t been a little bit run over at some point, you weren’t really worth knowing.

Without doubt, childhood is changing. No longer are your pre-teens dictated by advice in GirlTalk and convincing your mum to buy Pokémon cereal, and no longer is the biggest commitment in life remembering to feed your dogs on the Nintendo DS. Today, youth is sculptured by advice from Google, and PornHub, convincing mum to buy £80 Calvin Klein underwear and the biggest commitment in life is mastering contouring before you get to high school and finding your good angle to impress the boys on Snapchat.

I spent the weekend at my boyfriend’s house, charmed by old family videos of him and his sisters performing rap battles in France and traipsing around Welsh castles with picnics. The tapes were similar to those of my own family, and probably to many others of the Tammy Girl/Tamagotchi/Beanie Baby generation. Handheld SONY video camera, navigated by confused Dad with running commentary of date/location and the occasional “careful” or “don’t push your sister off the cliff edge”, with tired-looking mum running round with baby wipes and ham sandwiches in tin foil. But most evidently, outside. Always outside. With the constant deafening whoosh of recorded-wind in the garden, or by the sea, or up a hill, we were always outside.

So then, when I read in The Guardian earlier this week that more than three quarters of children spend less than an hour outside every day, I was dejected. Less than an hour, is less than maximum security prisoners. Just to reiterate that, British children are spending less time outside than extremely dangerous British inmates.

Two fifths of the children polled had never played stuck in the mud, and 18 per cent had never played outside at all. At all. Imagine growing up having never played stuck in the mud. That game was an essential tool to understanding the opposite sex (the nice boys would always free you) and critical to learning empathy. You just KNEW how shit it was to be stuck for ages with no hope of rescue.

The study was commissioned by laundry detergent company ‘Persil’, the posh version of Lidl’s ‘Formil’ (which is probably made from ground up children and dandelions but is two pounds cheaper and thus definitely worth the risk). In response to their shocking results, the #DirtIsGood campaign was born, in order to kick-start what they hoped will be a ‘global conversation’ about the importance of outdoor experiences.

I sincerely think if I was deprived of outdoor play when I was younger, my life would be incredibly different now. Being alfresco nurtured my love for nature and wildlife, and I built relationships in gardens and sandpits and mud baths. Dr Stuart Brown, an expert from the campaign, says that the importance of a child’s “immersion in the outdoors and in ‘dirt’” is imperative for their long-term health and wellbeing. I agree Stu, what kind of a childhood is all screens and controllers and classrooms?

But how much time do students spend outside? How much time do I spend outside? Surely we must be outside more than maximum security prisoners.

Alas, I concluded this may not be the case. My life is divided between lecture halls, libraries, my cinema job, my house, Live Lounge and the SU. Perhaps I don’t go outside enough either.

So this week I’m going outside. In the words of Natasha Bedingfield circa 2004, I will be feeling the rain on my skin as I trudge through Bute Park and sit out in beer gardens and stop taking the train from Cathays to Central. I’m going to go for picnics and search for bugs in the park and drag my friends around Cardiff Castle and maybe I’ll even sit outside in our concrete walled, grey and brown, flood-filled, rubbish spilled garden.

Dirt really is good, so go and get dirty. Even if you can’t afford Persil to get the stains out.