Brands communicate really well to children. Those of us who think children should love the natural world have not been nearly so successful. I’m making a film called Project Wild Thing – in it I try to use branding and marketing to sell the outdoors to children.
My poor family – since I started work on the film, they have become my guinea pigs.
I’ve attached a camera to my 5-year-old daughter to find out how much she goes outside. Not much, it turns out. Only 4% of her waking time is in the natural world – lower even than time spent in the bathroom…
I’ve been testing marketing messages on my wife. As part of the film, we’ve designed billboards, adverts and apps to encourage parents to see that by taking children – even very young children – outside, they are giving them the best possible start in life. The outdoors is where play is unstructured – where they make the rules. Indigenous cultures are much better than us in the West at celebrating and accommodating the will of the child. Author Jay Griffiths’ new book, Kith, explores how important it is that we allow children to feel at home in nature. She recently told me, “the word wild and the world will come from the same root – we need wildness to express our will”.
Perhaps worst of all, I’ve been recording and analyzing where, when and why we fight as a family. My 4-year-old son started a tantrum in a supermarket last week. He has seen a Spiderman cake, carefully positioned at his head height. “Why can’t you just buy it?”, he wanted to know. I got out my notebook and jotted down where, when and why this conflict situation occurred. “And now you’re not listening to me – just writing things!”, he complained. I didn’t have “recording conflict situations” on my list of possible things that cause conflict, so I didn’t write that one down.
I’ve found the results very enlightening. The top 5 conflict situations are:
- Shopping – normally the children see something they want and pester us, we have to respond
- Watching TV – both deciding on what to watch, and how much
- Food – what we eat, when we eat it, how much of it we eat toys – who is playing with that next, who broke Barbie’s hair curlers?
- Travel, especially in cars – boredom is the cause
The top 5 peaceful situations list contains the personal things we do as a family that make us happy. We read a lot of books together, we sing songs. Top, by a long, long shot, of the peaceful situation list, however, is spending time outside. It is not foolproof. I tried to get my daughter to finish a walk that was too long for her. There was conflict. I resolved it by carrying her. Now my shoulders are in conflict with each other instead. But in general, when we are outside, rows do not start. And if they do start, they finish quickly.
What is the magic ingredient present in the outdoors that puts it at the top of the peaceful situation list? That’s one of the questions we are addressing in Project Wild Thing. The answer is complicated – thank goodness. If there was a silver bullet, it would have been packaged-up and sold to parents long ago.
First, the outdoors is a complex and highly stimulating environment for children. Bored of the spider’s web? Then see how the severed crow’s wing works, as my son did last weekend.
Second, the attention that the outdoors demands from children is gentle. Unlike screens, and many toys, it calls softly to them, and then delivers properly gratifying mental and physical stimulation.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, though, there are no messages in nature that are designed to make us want things that cost money. That is unique in the modern world, where marketing has infiltrated most activities, including social networking. And when we have time and space to let these material wants fade, our true will, our wildness, can come forward.
Spiderman-cake-gate was defused when, on the way home, we found a tree covered with moth cocoons. At least I think that’s what they were. A new source of conflict is that I need to be a better guide in the outdoors.
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