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Why do London kids spend so much more time outside with their parents than country children?

Children play at the sandpit at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens
Children play at the sandpit at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens Credit: JULIAN SIMMONDS 

London children spend seven hours outside with their parents each week, almost four times more than their rural counterparts, according to a new survey.

This figure tallies with earlier average estimates of outdoor play for modern children, but the measurement of time with parents is new.

I have friends who moved out of London in search of rural idylls and they have just as much trouble prising their kids from YouTube as I do, so this hardly comes as a shock.  On a recent trip to the seaside to see a DFL (down from London) friend, we couldn’t persuade her 11-year-old to come to the beach. The novelty being close to the sea having long since evaporated and Fortnite was calling. 

Family time outside brings hosts of benefits. Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, a child psychologist, explained the results of the research, commissioned by Elastoplast, saying: “That uninterrupted time, spent interacting and playing with your children, is such a vital part of developing a secure relationship with them, which forms the bedrock of their social and emotional development.”

So why are London parents clocking so much more time outdoors with their children?

The Duchess of Cambridge, show in her Back to Nature Garden at Hampton Court Palace, has said that spending time outdoors plays a pivotal role in the future health and happiness of youngsters Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

We all can blame busy lives and the lure of the digital for failure to engage outdoors; children these days (and parents) are spending more time in front of screens (kids spend around 23 hours a week, according to another recent survey). Elastoplast found that the top three favourite activities of the children from the families surveyed were all screen-based (TV, tablets, and video games). Skipping rope and card games, both in the top five for their parents’ generation, don’t feature at all, indicating a decline in free play as screens increasingly dominate our lives. 

But in London, time outside is more of a necessity. In the park yesterday I asked some friends why they like to get their kids out of the house. Obviously it’s partly because the children need to run around (escaping from that fun parental game: how many times can you request cushions return to the sofa before you lose your mind).

My fellow parents nominated, “exercise, ‘fresh air’, space, fun”, noting: “We are lucky in south London: we have so many green spaces.” A mother of twins said: “Going to the park is essential, because when you’re raising two toddlers, you’re constantly tidying and the house seems to get really small and cramped. It’s refreshing to go outdoors where they have more space.”

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Surely, space must play a role: rural families tend to have larger houses and gardens. Could it also be that London’s leafy suburbs, with their smaller houses, also harbour a particular breed of helicopter parents?

And then there are the worries about safety in the capital; you can talk about free-range parenting as much as you like, but London parents are unlikely to send primary aged children to the park, alone. There’s the worry of the busy road crossing to get there, and then the concerns about the much-documented dangers that lie in wait. Thus, we hover around them for as long as they will countenance it (up to the age of around 13, in my experience).

I can’t help feeling that London parents have got it right, however. Their time with their children outside the home may be driven by worry, limited space, and a need to micro-manage play, but there’s a pleasure in spending time with your children at the park, and it’s worth making the most of this time.

Dr Kilbey agrees, saying: “In the busy modern world, time is our most precious commodity, and finding time to spend with our children enjoying the simplest of pleasures; just playing together outside, might be the rarest treasure of all.” 

Thus inspired, I took my daughter out to the park, and she scooted ahead of me, relishing the freedom, rushing towards the lake, where she’ll stop to look at the ducks before zooming off again. She was hurrying towards her favourite spot, an arched space formed by branches. I can remember that feeling of discovering a secret world, where a tree hollow becomes a castle or a hideout. It’s heartening to remember that whether your kids get out to play in an acre of country garden or a slightly down-at-heel London park, the only limit is their imagination.