Forget expensive days out this summer, find more creative ways to entertain your children - and you could have the next Ed Sheeran on your hands

Crabbing costs virtually nothing and is a perfect 'safe risk' activity for your children

Crabbing costs virtually nothing and is a perfect 'safe risk' activity for your children - Credit:

Children are counting down the days until schools break up, heralding the start of six weeks when the bell that signals it’s time for lessons to begin never rings, writes Sheena Grant.

Get outside this summer

Get outside this summer - Credit: Archant

Many parents are also counting down the days, knowing that time is running out to organise childcare while they’re working, days out and play dates, not to mention booking sports and other activity courses.

It’s a major headache - and a major expense.

According to a newly-published study, families are spending an average of £440 a year on days out. Two thirds of those surveyed said the cost of activities had actually stopped them venturing out with the children.

But there is a school of thought that challenges the idea we have to provide non-stop, costly entertainment. It may even be good for children to have times when they have nothing to do.

Meera Syal

Meera Syal - Credit: PA

For anyone who grew up a generation ago, this is almost exactly what school holidays were. Then, children would wake most mornings not really having much idea of how the day was going to unfold. We might call on our friends, go out on our bikes, build a den or just gaze out of the window until an idea occurred to us.

Nowadays, traffic and other safety concerns mean we don’t want to turn our children lose but also - perhaps because of that - children themselves seem to have become more demanding, less able to make their own entertainment.

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Dr Teresa Belton, a visiting fellow in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia, is concerned the expectation that children should be constantly active could hamper the development of imagination. Having nothing to do can be a spur to creativity. And anyway, she says, there are plenty of low or no cost ways to have fun. It just involves rediscovering our own playful side as parents and disentangling ourselves from the tentacles of consumerism.

“It is a symptom of the consumer society that we expect to have to buy everything,” says Dr Belton, who has studied the influence of screens on children’s imagination and written a book called Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting wellbeing first would help sustain life on Earth. “Everything is commoditised, even spare time. We need to be aware that some commercial organisation somewhere is looking for opportunities to make money out of people’s time and their need to fill it.”

Bucket and spade days allow your children to be creative, burn energy and take in some fresh air

Bucket and spade days allow your children to be creative, burn energy and take in some fresh air - Credit: britainonview/ Rod Edwards

Instead of getting sucked into that we should think in different ways, says Dr Belton. This means encouraging imaginative play and self-reliance.

“Modern children are becoming dependent on external stimuli, which saves them the bother of having to develop their own inner resources,” she says. “But to stand you in good stead one needs inner resources, such as having a good attention span. Modern life is so fast-paced but it is really useful for a human being to have the capacity to stick with their own thoughts and activities. Things like gardening and woodworking are really good for children’s development and interaction between the brain, hand and eye.”

Dr Belton acknowledges there are well-founded anxieties about road safety and ‘stranger danger’ risk - real or perceived - that feed into children having less freedom and says one solution to this is being put forward by a charity called Playing Out, which advocates communities using street party legislation to close streets for a few hours so children can enjoy free play in safety.

And there are lots of other things we can do to stimulate free, imaginative activities.

Dr Teresa Belton with her book, Happier People Healthier Planet.

Dr Teresa Belton with her book, Happier People Healthier Planet. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2014

“Children might need a helping hand to get them started,” says Dr Belton. “You could challenge them to set you a treasure hunt with clues around the house and garden that you have to find, get them to plan a feast for someone or see how big a den they can make from things they can find in the house or garden.”

And she advises us to rediscover our own playful side.

“There is so much stress put on child care nowadays that parents can’t enjoy their own children,” says Dr Belton. “I wonder whether a lot of parents have forgotten that they can have as much enjoyment with their children as their children can have with them. If a child’s main carer doesn’t have a sense of playfulness it is much more difficult for the child to become playful - by that I mean trying things out and not just following a trodden path on, say, a computer game.

It doesn’t need to involve anything other than getting to a beach or going out into the countryside to run around or just be in green spaces.

Crabbing is a childhood must.

Crabbing is a childhood must. - Credit: Archant

“Another thing that is important is for parents not to mind children making a mess. One has to have certain limits but children need to be able to be messy. There could even be ways of making the cleaning up into a game in itself. I actually think this anti-messiness, in a way, is part of our consumer society because we are so image conscious.

“You could give children chalks and let them draw on paving slabs outside, play hopscotch and then have a watering can and a scrubbing brush to wash it all away. Boys who like toy cars could set up a car wash. If you’ve got paint or play dough set up a pvc tablecloth so that it can contain the mess.

“There is a great deal of fun that can be had without spending much - or any - money. Part of imagination is finding new uses for existing objects - an important part of play for children is seeing one object as something else. A stick could be a magic wand, for instance, a bottle filled with water a musical instrument.”

Dr Belton suggests cooking as a way of engaging children’s imagination and teaching them another life skill - assessing risk, something modern kids are often not equipped for. “You could have a fire, cooking dough sticks in the garden,” she says. “By giving them a ‘safe risk’ they can learn how to handle and assess that impulse to take risks.”

While she doesn’t necessarily advocate banning television and computer games completely she does think they should be limited and, in the case of television, children perhaps encouraged to choose a programme to watch rather than sitting, zombie like, in front of whatever comes on.

And sometimes, it may even be good to give them time with nothing to do.

“Boredom, or having nothing to do, gives us time to initiate and process our thoughts,” says Dr Belton. “It gives the opportunity to enjoy stillness, quiet and solitude, to day dream and go out of doors or move around and use all our senses.”

This can be hugely creative. As part of her studies, Dr Belton has quizzed several people, including author and actor Meera Syal, about how boredom had aided their creativity as children.

Syal told Dr Belton: “I spent hours staring out of the window across the fields. Just watching the clouds changing or patterns flocks of birds made kept me busy for hours. Also, boredom made me write. I started keeping a diary and filled it with observations, short stories and diatribes. I attribute that to me becoming a writer in later life.”

And Dr Belton’s arguments seem to be borne out by the experience of none other than Suffolk’s own Ed Sheeran.

The singer-songwriter, who grew up at Framlingham, is on the record as saying he wasn’t allowed to watch television or own a games console as a child.

“I honestly think that was one of the best things my mum never did. All the time that my friends were playing Grand Theft Auto, I was sat there practising the guitar over and over and over again. To this day, I don’t know what to do on an Xbox or a PlayStation,” he said.

And, let’s face it, it’s an approach that doesn’t seem to have done Ed any harm.

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