‘Spending more time outside is a really political act’

Children are more disconnected from nature than ever before, new research says. But for one man, these findings present an exciting opportunity to get children into the great outdoors. Laura Smith talks to David Bond about Project Wild Thing

There is a scene in new documentary film Project Wild Thing where director David Bond sits under a tree for an hour. It may not sound like the most electrifying cinematic moment, but as he listens to the birdsong and watches the wind rippling across the water, you can feel your own breath slowing down in appreciation of the scene.

It is this ‘power to ground’ us that leads Bond to describe nature as a “wonder drug”: one that most of us, especially children, are not taking enough of. The amount of time British children spend outdoors has shrunk by 50% in a generation, for example, and their roaming area – the space in which they are allowed to play unsupervised – by 90%. Bond’s mission is to change all that: he wants children to spend at least as much time playing outside as they do in front of screens.

“When you think of all the barriers there are to children playing outside – whether it’s traffic or fear of paedophiles or advertising to the under-12s or our obsession with health and safety – it’s overwhelming and really depressing,” he says. “But if we all go outside more, that’s the silver bullet. If there are more people outside, the government will have to do something about the traffic and provide better public spaces. I see spending more time outside as a really political act.”

Bond’s enthusiasm is infectious. We meet at a community cafe near his home in south-east London and it’s clear that he’s something of a local hero. A screening of the film here earlier this month attracted more than 100 people. Having dragged table and chairs into the autumn sun, he explains that the film was a year in the thinking and another two in the making. It began when he and friend Ashley Jones – his partner in their production company Green Lions – became fathers. “We looked around and thought: ‘Why is nobody selling nature?’ and wondered if we could do it.” They approached broadcasters with the idea but moved onto other projects. Then the National Trust, with encouragement from BritDoc, decided to fund a film about so-called Nature Deficit Disorder. Over 200 filmmakers applied; Green Lions was chosen.

The resulting documentary follows Bond as he appoints himself ‘marketing director for nature’ and meets experts in branding, marketing and advertising to learn how to beat the big brands at their own game. He talks with neuroscientists, campaigners and environmentalists and paints a picture of just how alienated British children have become from the natural world.

“Given a little encouragement, children revel in the bugs and the fresh air and the leaves and the mud”

By filming his own family, Bond also exposes some of the tensions that will be familiar to most parents. One line had me cringing with guilt: “I have ignored [my children] to look at my phone. Now they want a phone so they can look down and stare. Just like me.”

Yet what emerges just as strongly is the enduring pull of nature and how, given a little encouragement, children revel in the bugs and the fresh air and the leaves and the mud. In one memorable scene Bond is confronted with a classroom of teenage girls listing why they don’t like nature – from rain and vicious dogs to not wanting to spoil their clothes. When Bond takes a group of them to the local park, though, it’s a different story: their faces light up as they examine leaves and step gingerly through puddles. It is uplifting to watch – Bond says it was “one of my happiest days of filming”.

Equally touching are the scenes with Mason, ten years old and bright as a button, who takes Bond on a tour of his east London council estate: here’s the ‘green grass’, a tiny strip of green where he takes his dog; here’s where he plays football with his friends beneath the ‘no ball games’ sign.

Project Wild Thing is released nationwide on Friday 25 October but is already making waves. There have been 51 community screenings and a further 55 are planned in the UK and around the world. Several of Bond’s marketing ideas developed during filming are up and running, including maternity packs promoting time in nature to new parents and an app with ideas of things to do outdoors.

The Wild Network, a 300-strong coalition of organisations committed to connecting children with nature and wildness, now includes the RSPB, Play England and the Woodland Trust as well as the National Trust. Profits from the film will go towards funding its work.

Bond is in no doubt that this is the birth of a movement. “We didn’t start these ideas,” he says. “People have been doing this forever, but in bunkers. What we have done is to bring them together.” More personally, he says the film has “changed me more than anything I’ve been involved in.” He adds: “I now very carefully carve out time for us all as a family. I’m fully aware of what the screen, the iPad, the phone will do to us if we let it. Our default position now is to be outside.”

Project Wild Thing is in UK cinemas from Friday 25 October. Click here for information about screenings.