Is this film the tipping point for a more free-range childhood?

George Bernard Shaw allegedly once advised that if you are going to espouse radical ideas, you should wear a respectable suit. David Bond, director and protagonist of the new documentary film Project Wild Thing, clearly has no time for Shaw’s advice: at one point he appears in a huge squirrel costume, manically leafleting a shopping mall in an effort to switch uninterested consumers on to the joys of nature (a scene that crops up in the trailer at the end of this post).

Project Wild Thing, like Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods and my own Sowing the Seeds report, takes up the challenge of reconnecting children with nature and the outdoors. At the start of the film Bond (channelling Pete, the longsuffering dad in the hit BBC sitcom Outnumbered) tries to pull his 3- and 5-year old kids away from their screens and go outside to play. Faced with stubborn resistance, he appoints himself Marketing Director of Nature to, in his words, “flog the benefits of nature to the public”. (And he really did – I blogged about one of his schemes last summer.)

David Bond with business cardThe job puts Bond in some engaging situations, including a brainstorming session with marketing gurus, an al fresco meditation with a back-to-nature ex-serviceman, the main stage at the Shambala Festival, a weekend gathering of digital hipsters, and a soapbox session at Speaker’s Corner, jostling with revolutionary Marxists to gain an audience. Here, one man asks Bond, “why aren’t you fighting capitalism?” and is silenced by his defiant response: “spending time enjoying nature is the ultimate anti-capitalist act!” His interviewees include scientists, green campaigners and writers on childhood (Jay Griffiths, whose new book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape covers similar ground, and also yours truly).

While Bond, as everyman-slash-salesman, is the focus for the story, for me the true stars are a diverse cast of children and young people. Alongside Bond’s own kids, these include some young residents of the Scottish island of Eigg out in the woods (in one glorious shot, a child is seen gorging on wild garlic leaves); a classroom of diffident London schoolgirls (one describes how, out on a walk, her mum pulled up the hood of her waterproof coat, and she “looked like a walking crisp packet”); a group of children who discover the joys of roly-polying down hillocks on their Tottenham housing estate; some tough-looking young men from Birmingham who were too afraid of gangs to visit the park at the end of their street; and a handful of kids playing out on their bikes in the suburban street where Bond himself grew up.

The most poignant character is ten-year-old Mason, who takes Bond on a tour of his East London neighbourhood. This piece of precocious psycho-geography takes in ‘the Curly Wurly slope’ (a concrete path), a bleak estate car park, a former green space that is being redeveloped for new housing (“they took a lot of space… it’s not really fair”, Mason says in a muted voice) and a tiny patch of grass littered with dog poo. The segment brings home both the extent of Mason’s appetite for outdoor adventure and exploration, and the poverty of our collective response.

The way that all these children are framed – not as types, not as objects of anxiety or pity, not as experimental specimens, but as real people who are trying to get to grips with, and make sense of, the world they find themselves in – is a real strength of the film. Far from demonising or medicalising children, the film’s message is that the key threats to childhood – rampant consumerism, addiction to screens, distorted safety fears – are, at heart, all about adult decisions and choices.

Even though grown-ups are rightly the focus of the film’s moral inquiry, it skilfully avoids guilt-tripping its audience about the dangers of a nature-deprived, screen-addicted childhood. It has a thoughtful take on technology. Soon after taking on his ‘job’, Bond identifies screens as “my competitor”. But as the film unfolds, it explores how digital resources might be used creatively to get children out of doors. Its timestamp is firmly in the 21st century: it makes no pretence that our urbanised, connected, commodified world can be rewound to some ‘golden age’ of childhood (whenever/wherever that was).

My biggest criticism of the film is that its ending feels slightly unresolved. It is not hard to see why. The importance of giving children the freedom to play and explore out of doors is underscored throughout. Yet there is no obvious enemy here – unlike with climate change or terrorism, say – and there are no simple solutions to offer. It is understandable that the film-makers, perhaps with an eye to a mass audience, may have wanted to avoid sloganeering. Nonetheless, I was left with no clear sense of what I – or anyone else motivated to act – should do once the credits had rolled. I also felt that the car culture was let off the hook. In my view, it is the single most important factor in keeping children indoors.

That said, Project Wild Thing is engaging, moving, thoughtful, and refreshingly irreverent. It captures the perspectives, voices and experiences of children and young people in a rich, three-dimensional way. It is also very funny. The scene with Bond in a squirrel suit encapsulates one of its hallmarks: a mischievous playfulness that takes aim at the totems of modern capitalism, whilst experimenting with its workings and tactics.

Project Wild Thing may not end with a manifesto or rallying cry. But it might just be the film that persuades consumers, politicians and global corporate executives that getting kids out of doors and under the open skies is a goal worth pursuing. It may even go down well with the kids – and wouldn’t that be a sign of success?

Project Wild Thing, produced by Green Lion Productions in collaboration with the Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation, Good For Nothing, the National Trust, the RSPB, and the NHS, gets its world premiere at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival on 12 June [tomorrow!] with two more screenings on 13 and 15 June. Here is a taster video:

Further selected UK cinema releases are planned for July October (see below), and possibly a broadcast showing. There are also plans to make the film available for community screenings. More details at www.projectwildthing.com  – and do look out for more news on these pages, my Facebook page and twitter feed.

Update 19 September 2013: tickets are now on sale for cinema screenings at selected venues around the UK, from 25 October.

Update Thurs 14 June 2013 (and subsequently): The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw gave the film four stars in this review – but Geoffrey MacNab in the Independent did not like it (25 Oct 2013). I will add links to other reviews here as I come across them (feel free to comment/contact me with more): Sheffield Students Union, 2B Landscape Consultancy. There is also a selection of reviews and highlights on the National Trust Outdoor Nation website.

11 responses to “Is this film the tipping point for a more free-range childhood?

  1. Hi Tim! Great review! Just curious, was there a 2 minuet section with a young boy and his father play fighting with swords on a castle? And if so how did it fit into the film? I made this section for it almost a year ago and hadn’t heard how it was to be incorporated into the finished film. I live on the other side of the country so i’m going to try an get down there for the public viewing tomorrow hopefully!

  2. Hi Tim, I was at the ‘world premier screening’ at Sheffield Doc Fest on Wednesday – it got a long ovation and was extremely uplifting. To have the level of creativity and energy demonstrated in the film, by many others as well as David, applied to this issue is very exciting – it does feel like a tipping point is being reached. We now need some politicians to be captivated by the film…
    (by the way those london schoolgirls are at the secondary school I went to!). Jan

    • Thanks Jan – let’s hope it gets a huge audience, and (as you say) sways those in positions of power and influence – and how funny that you went to one of the featured schools.

  3. Lovely review Tim – and thoughtful as always. From our Wild Network meeting yesterday I gather that the film has gone down really well with all sorts of audiences outside the play sector – exactly what we want.
    But David himself said the film itself isn’t yet and won’t be a tipping point unless we all really push it and the messages behind it.
    For what it’s worth I think the Wild Network with its potential membership clout and the amazing creativity and passion it has already engendered could be the biggest thing in changing attitudes since I started in playwork. It has certainly started with me as I begin to understand that we need to create a societal demand for children’s freedom to play anywhere rather than concentrating completely on the supply side, important as that is.

  4. Pingback: Project Wild Thing – the reviews « Outdoor Nation

  5. Pingback: Incredible reception for Project Wild Thing at Sheffield Doc/Fest « Greenlions

  6. Thanks, as always, Tim. The trailer looks fantastic!
    Perhaps just the dynamic, playful approach needed for a paradigm shift?
    Any idea when or how we might see the film here in the US?

  7. Pingback: Out and About 2 | The Gingerbread

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