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In depth: Outdoor Learning, the future of play, and the potential for the toy space

A letter signed by 32 environmental and youth organisations, including The Wildlife Trusts and Friends of the Earth has propelled the conversation around Outdoor Learning and the impact it has on children’s education, resilience, and mental wellbeing back into the mainstream media. ToyNews looks in-depth at the potential that this emerging school of thought has for the toy industry and a whole new future of child’s play

It seems almost serendipitous that just as the world underwent its Great Pause at the hands of a pandemic, good weather struck the UK and welcomed a nation out of doors and into its local wilds, right at a time it needed it the most. All of a sudden, the 5km perimeter (political advisers exempt, of course) became the new frontier for thousands of families to explore, and the call of the wild took on a whole new concept.

Outdoor Learning also managed to find a new footing as parents, children and families together were forced to look closer to home for their adventures, and new means for education and development.

The online toy retailer, The Toy Centre is one of many across the UK to have seen a spike in interest in outdoor toys during those strangest of months, and a sales surge that buoyed its business through what could have been a tough trading time for others. Credit, according to the shop’s owner Janice Allibone, goes to the ‘new breed of consumer,’ to have emerged from the global lockdown measures; one that is now “actively seeking out toys to engage and hold their child’s attention.”

The question is, however, how much of this – a shift in mind-set and a greater value placed in the importance of play from the consumer’s point of view – is going to continue to drive sales, and how much will it shape the future of the toy space from here on out?

In her ongoing research project focusing on the Changing Nature of Play during Lockdown, Valeria Miglioi, a toy designer, former creative director at Fiesta Crafts and now founder of the design and consultancy business, Pumpkin Project, has begun to uncover some positive results for the idea of Outdoor Learning. Based on the replies to her consumer-wide survey to date, it has emerged that over half of parents stated that outdoor play was the most sought after play activity by their children during lockdown. Meanwhile, gardening, going for walks in the forest and playing in the garden were some of the activities that children and parents enjoyed doing the most together.

It’s this – a shared lockdown experience between children and parents alike – that Miglioli believes has helped take the notion of Outdoor Learning to the mainstream. The researcher even goes as far as to quote one parent within her study to have said that “what I learnt during this time with regards to playing with my child, is that as long as you’ve got the energy, free play and getting outdoors is key.”

It’s with this in mind that she tells ToyNews that “perhaps this new mind-set is already happening and the experiences during lockdown are already leaving a positive impression on families without them fully realising.”

The Great Outdoors

When it comes to defining what Outdoor Learning actually is, the field of exploration is as vast as the concept that it embodies. Whether you’re ‘manning a yacht and making passage across the Irish Sea’ or counting the number of insects you find on a walk along your nearest river trail, Outdoor Learning is an idea for which its only parameters are the limits of imagination, accessibility, and desire to engage with the outside world. For children, the cornerstone of the idea is something we’ve all come to recognise as Free Play.

“As well as the more straightforward physical activities like walking and running, during outdoor play, children are allowed to challenge their coordination and their sense of balance by moving in all directions, for example, while climbing trees or rolling down grassy hills,” continues Miglioli. “They develop strength and endurance by walking up hills, and carrying objects like logs and rocks.”

According to the experts, it’s activities such as tying knots to secure a den, or even just picking up leaves and pebbles that all do their bit to strengthen fine motor skills in children. In essence, the outdoors provides “a new sensory environment in which to run wild.”

“Children are inspired to think independently when outdoors because the environment allows time, space, and opportunities to use their creativity – they are free to design, construct, experiment, problem solve and use their imagination,” says Miglioli.

“On top of this, it is well known how physical activity and movement affects the body’s ability to regulate emotions, but spending time in nature can also lower cortisol levels in the brain, promoting calmness and relieving some of the everyday pressures that can lead to depression and anxiety.”

Benefits such as these are pretty hard to argue against. But it is in the spaces between that the toy industry must find its way in. For David Strang, CEO and founder of the sports toys specialist, Wicked Vision, ‘outdoor learning’ is as much about switching off from the pressures of the traditional environment, as it is about the act of learning.

“Sometimes, when our minds are inactive as far as actual learning goes, that’s when subconsciously we are thinking and processing skills the most,” Strang explains. “Switch off time can be kicking or batting a ball around, skipping or doing all these things, and that leads on to a whole new conversation of subconscious, meditative learning and mental health. All are massive issues within society today, and a great start to that is to simply get off screens, get outside, learn outside through activity, playing and having fun. And if you can’t do it outside, do it indoors anyway.”

For Miglioli, it’s in the simplicity of a toy that the greatest force for Outdoor Learning can be found, and that the toy industry is in the greatest position to “facilitate the developments of essential skills for children through play experiences, toys, and equipment.”

“What we all want,” she says, “is to deliver what is best for our children, after all.”

Such a pair to have spotted the potential for the toy space within the field of Outdoor Learning was Johanne Jones and Kay Miller, two former teachers turned entrepreneurs who struck upon the business concept of the Den Kit Company.

Over the course of just a few years, the Den Kit Company has grown from a portfolio of two to 23 products, each designed to encourage kids out of doors and into adventure, taking inspiration from the duo’s own experiences of Forest School Teacher Training in which the pair were tasked with creating shelter for the night while in the woods.

Now a full time business for the pair, Miller and Jones now find their range of den-making and explorations kits lining the shelves of The National Trust shops across the UK, The Eden Project’s own gift shop, filling shelves in Fenwicks, Kew Gardens, and a growing number of garden centres around the country.

Their’s is a business that suffered relatively few knocks and no small uptake in sales over the past few months, fueled by the consumer’s desire to get their kids up and outdoors. Add to this the matter that The Den Kit Company taps into the rising interest for sustainable and ecofriendly products, and the reasons for its success over these short years begin to mount.

“Buyers both b2b and b2c seem to be looking for activity based, sustainable, re-usable, openended toys,” Miller tells ToyNews. “In many ways, I think we have all taken the access to outdoor space for granted in the past. Lockdown went to highlight the strong, compelling need that children (and adults) have for just ‘being’ in a natural environment, and the many benefits it has upon our mental and physical health. We found that parents were desperate for absorbing activities to get their children off screens and out into the garden.”

While it is instantly obvious that the company’s Den Kits appeal directly to children’s sense of adventure, it’s not by accident that they also pack an educational punch that is powered by the mere fact that these are facilitators for outdoor play.

“As educators, it was always evident that, given the opportunity, most children thrive in an outdoor, natural environment – the best classroom of all,” continues Miller. “And passionate about the benefits of outdoor play – and concerned about the over prescriptive nature of ‘creative’ gifts for children, we started a company to redress the balance.

“Our Den Kits offer an effective teaching tool. Unencumbered by adult intervention, children are free to explore their own creative talents for problem solving, critical thinking and ingenuity.”

Miller admits she is being optimistic when she says she believes the trend for Outdoor Learning will continue post-pandemic, and certainly as we slide into the autumn and winter, the inclination to trapse the wooded paths in driving rain will undoubtedly drop off for the thousands that have enjoyed their sun dappled adventures.

“But the evident need to focus on our children’s well-being and that of our planet is here to stay,” she adds. “We want people to remember what nature did for them during lockdown, and not to forget or neglect it as the world slowly returns to ‘normal.’”

The part to play

Back at her research, Miglioli is busy studying and uncovering the beneficial roles that the wider toy industry has to play within the Outdoor Learning concept; asking not simply ‘how can the industry tap into the opportunity to make money?’ but how to do so while facilitating the experiences that come naturally to children while they are playing outdoors.

The true shape of it, suggest Miglioli’s findings, is that a child shouldn’t need toys in order to play in the wild and experience Outdoor Learning, not where a rock, stick, or the natural elements should suffice as their items for play. However, apply that to real life, and how successfully will a stick coax a six year old away from YouTube? Good luck with that.

Therefore perhaps the toy industry does have a role to play – and more than a minor one – in inviting intrigue in a child enough to put the screen down and take a step outside?

“I have recognised that Outdoor Learning and Play is not quite so straightforward for parents when it’s taken out of organised settings,” Miglioli shares. “Parents need to be aware of how to encourage Outdoor Learning, what they can do, what games can be played, what the opportunities are, how to get started, and what is needed in terms of equipment and tools.

“Also, parents will need help in identifying possibilities that can be explored by the children at different stages of their life and in different settings, like the garden, the local park, during the walk to school and so on.

“I believe that the best potential for the toy industry will be the facilitating of these experiences with products which make outdoor play more accessible on a daily basis and all year round, that can assist families with guidance and ideas and can help with recognising the play opportunities which are around us.”

Of course, Miglioli wouldn’t have been as effective a creative director or built such a reputation within the toy design circles had she not not only spotted the potential for the toy industry within the Outdoor Learning space, but started development of her own designs to fit within and facilitate it.

“I have already been working on some low impact, ecologically-minded concepts for this that I am very excited about,” she tells ToyNews. But that’s all she is willing to say right now, the rest we will have to discover in due course. So until then, perhaps we’ll go for a walk in the woods for a bit.

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