Embrace the great outdoors

Áilín Quinlan talks to Peter Kelly and others about wrapping up and heading to the woods for seasonal fun.

WINTER picnics on the beach with flasks of frankfurters, healthy forest walks, using a fire-pit and sleeping out in a tree-house – it’s all part of family life for Peter Kelly’s kids.

Better known as the renowned wedding and interior décor guru Franc, Kelly and his wife Eadaoin are big fans of the outdoors and regularly bring their fab four — Cameryn, 14, Jessie, 13, Codí, 10, and Mia, eight — on invigorating winter hikes.

“It was Eadaoin who first introduced me to the idea of winter picnics,” says Kelly. “She came from a large family and they loved these crazy winter picnics — they used to wrap up and go out on them.

“We take the kids on these winter picnics once or twice a month. We all go to the beach or to the forest or the lake. Eadaoin’s very involved in orienteering and she’ll go orienteering with Cameryn and then we’ll have the picnics.

“They’ll sometimes cook sausages on a disposable barbecue, or they’ll bring cooked frankfurters in a flask and stuff them into some crusty bread while sitting on the rugs and blankets they’ve brought along. It’s like the Waltons on tour,” quips Kelly, who has also built a fire-pit in his back garden — the children have all been taught how to make a fire safely.

“Lots of parents keep their kids away from fire but I taught them about the dangers and how to be careful.”

Despite their busy work-schedules, he says, he and his wife always make time to get outdoors with the kids. “Eadaoin is really great at getting them up and at it and getting us all out — she is the driving force. She was always great for bringing them rock climbing and getting them to go out. She’s very adventurous herself and does a lot of orienteering and I think it’s good to get out and get them active and make them resilient.

“These days we’re wrapping our kids up too much in cotton wool,” he says, pointing out that many children nowadays spend more time at classes like ballet or piano than going outside to simply play.

Encouraging children to play outdoors is something more parents should focus on — in 2010 the Children, Sport Participation and Physical Activity study found that about only 1% of children spend less than two hours daily sitting viewing TV, videos or playing on the computer.

Also, it revealed, less than one-fifth of primary school children and just 12% of post-primary school children met the Department of Health and Children physical activity recommendations of at least 60 minutes daily of moderate to vigorous physical activity.

This is already showing up in lowered childhood fitness levels, according to Donal Dowd, director of Kerry Outdoor Education Centres in Cappanalea and Knockreer. Between them, the centres handle about 32,000 people annually, of which 66% are under 18s. Over the years the level of physical activity that instructors expose children to has had to be scaled back because of falling fitness levels, Dowd warns.

“Hikes we’d have done 10 years ago we couldn’t do at the moment — the teenagers wouldn’t be fit enough and they wouldn’t be capable of it. They’re not getting enough activity.

“Ten years ago we’d have gone up Carrantuohill twice or three times a week with different small groups,” says Dowd of the 1,038-metre climb, which would normally take about five hours.

“Nowadays there are some weeks we don’t go up at all because the groups we’re dealing with aren’t sufficiently fit.

“We do a camping expedition and there are occasions when teenagers cannot even carry their own rucksacks — they’re simply not used to physical exertion to the extent that they used to be.”

Part of the problem, he believes, is that many parents are increasingly reluctant to allow children to roam free outdoors.

“They’re less willing to let them off into the fair green or the back field as they used to be,” he says, adding that children need to be engaged in physical activity from an early age.

“It’s about bringing them out on walks, getting them used to little hardships like rain — they should be able to play outside with their anoraks on.

“All the research will show that being outdoors is important for mental and physical health. Nature can bring a sense of thrill and adventure and also a sense of calm and tranquillity,” says Dowd.

“Their entertainment is based around telephones and computers — and they don’t engage with folks as easily. There are weight issues — you can see it in the children. Also they don’t know how to play games like tag, skipping, or picking up a ball and kicking it around.”

A recent visit to Slovenia highlighted to Trish Walsh how sedentary habits have affected the fitness levels of Irish children.

Walsh, the director of Petersburg Outdoor Education Centre in Clonburr, Co Galway, says the trip brought home to her how much Irish society has changed.

“We went on a hike for five hours with primary school children aged about 10 or 11.”

She doubts the situation would have been similar in Ireland.

“I think there would have been a lot more sitting down, a lot more grumpy faces and more complaining if they had been Irish children.”

Join them and set the example

¦ There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes. Invest in a few pairs of wellies, bundle up in suitable clothing and get outside.

¦ Decide that your kids will spend more time outside and focus on how you are going to do this.

¦ You could start by simply sending them out to play for just half an hour extra every day. Explain that they will swap 30 minutes of screen time — TV, computer, phone — for an extra half hour of ‘wild time’ which could be simply playing out in the garden.

¦ Don’t be a couch potato — be a role model. Make a point of taking them for hikes, cycling, kicking a ball, going to the beach, etc.

¦ Make it fun. Collect conkers. Find some snails and try snail-racing.


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