Georgina Parfitt is the author of the magical world of Timbalaya. Here she talks with us about playing outside as a child and the importance of engaging with nature.

I used to play outside with my brother, the patio chairs would become the impenetrable gable of a fortress, the grass would be a moat, and when we headed into battle, we stomped to the dark end of the garden, which was always wilder, a mess of compost and tangled flowers and rotten wood.

Or I would go off alone into the footpaths around the fields beside our house. The horizon turned into whatever I needed that day and I would come back home feeling a whole story in the soles of my feet.

I knew it made me happier to play outside — I could feel it — but it wasn’t until later that I realised how these adventures would come back to me, in the form of stories. I would be able to use them to keep making myself happier as I became an adult.

1. Playing outside can counteract stress

You don’t have to venture far to find statistics that bear out the importance of outdoor play for children’s development. Playing outside doesn’t just help children enjoy exercise; it also holds many cognitive, sensory and social benefits. And the big one — happiness.

If you look at the way children self-report their own happiness, the scores for “life as a whole” have decreased in recent years, according to The Good Childhood Report 2019. Add to that the fact that fewer children are playing outside, and more parents are attempting to give their children “zero-risk childhoods,” and you can see that creating a safe way to play imaginatively outside is sorely needed.

2. Creativity is key to balancing risk and reward

In Timbalaya, the risks of playing in “the wild” are held and supported by story, forming a safe space to adventure. The crucial link is creativity. When children play outside with story, their imagination is able to interact with wilder elements, making sense of them. Imaginative play has been shown to boost children’s vocabulary, art-making, and problem-solving skills, which in turn give children greater power over their surroundings and thoughts, making them happier and healthier.

The phenomenon is cyclical — playing imaginatively outdoors leads to creativity at home and in the classroom, which leads back into the outdoors. Each time a child ventures outside to play is important, catalysing the learning that comes next.

3. Children need a mix of independence and togetherness

When we were first imagining Timbalaya, we took our research to the woods. It was a summer day — the kind of school-holiday-summer-day that starts early and ends late. We weren’t meticulous with the plan; instead we wanted to strew the woods with opportunities for play and scraps of stories, and simply watch what happened.

As families arrived, they wandered around the clearing we’d begun to occupy, in their half-term holiday togetherness. A few moments of uncertainty, then the children began to find things, pick things up, follow trails. After half an hour, they were wombats and tree-climbers. They’d colonized a shelter of sticks and crafted a history around it. They were working together and exploring independently, at the same time.

By the end, they were raring to create — they wanted to write things down, to form clubs and tribes that would last the whole summer. Then, they wanted to come back to the woods, to the scene, and create the next chapter for themselves.

This was after just one afernoon in the woods. Just imagine what they could make if the woods were part of their daily lives?

Georgina Parfitt, author of the magical world of Timbalaya.