Kids need outdoor play

Dvora & Rafi Meitiv up a tree
A kid’s natural habitat

My previous blog post talked about the many reasons that free play is critical for healthy child development. But time free play is disappearing for most kids, especially free play outdoors.

A 2012 study of over 4 million children found that on most days, more than 40% of preschoolers didn’t even have one opportunity to play outdoors. Not a single chance to touch the grass, breathe fresh air, or bask in the sun. That’s a dramatic change from just one generation ago: in a national survey, 830 mothers were asked to compare their own childhood play with their children’s—eighty-five percent agreed that their children played outdoors less than they had at the same age. 70% of mothers said they had played outdoors daily, and 56% said they did so for 3 hours or more. Regarding their kids’ play, the percentages were 31% daily, and 22% for three hours or more.

Kids today are under house arrest

Many parents claim that “screens” lure children indoors and away from outdoor physical activities. It is true that kids are spending a lot of their time using technology: a 2012 UCLA study found that 90% of children’s leisure time is spent indoors with television, video games, and computers. However, studies in the UK found that 40% of kids would rather play outside, but their parents wouldn’t let them, citing concerns about traffic and ‘stranger danger.’ In the survey of 830 American mothers, most admitted that they restricted their children’s outdoor play, with 82% citing “safety” including fear of crime as the primary reason, in spite of the fact that all categories of violent crime are at their lowest point in forty years.

When kids are allowed outside, it’s usually to participate in a scheduled or organized activity. A survey by the U.S. National Centers for Disease Control for that in a typical week 27% of kids ages 9 to 13 play organized baseball, but only 6% played on their own. Many parents believe that participation in team sports is beneficial for kids and there is evidence to support that view. But this participation should not come at the expense of free play and when the benefits are compared, free play comes out ahead. A study published in the Creativity Research Journal found that hours spent participating in organized sports were negatively related to creativity as an adult, while time spent in unstructured sports settings were positively correlated with adult creativity.

Some parents justify channeling their children into sports rather than free play on the grounds that the children might get hurt if allowed to play without structure or guidance. The opposite is true. A study of more than 1,200 children, from 8 to 18 years old, who visited 2 Chicago hospitals, found that children were more likely to be injured if they spent twice as much time per week in organized sports as they did in free play. Why? “Unlike team sports, individual play in nature allows the child to tailor exercise to his or her own interests and abilities, often in conjunction with creative efforts,” says the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP).

Kids need outdoor play

According to the AAP, playing outdoors, in nature, “allows for the full blossoming of creativity, curiosity, and the associated developmental advances,” that kids need. “Play in nature provides children with opportunities for self-directed physical activity that can help promote physical health and reduce obesity.” Angela Hascom, pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook, says that as the amount of time kids spend outdoors decreases, sensory deficits are increasing and she’s seeing more kids with underdeveloped vestibular (balance) systems. “A child’s neurological system is naturally designed to seek out the sensory input it needs in order to develop into a strong and capable individual.”

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, speculates that the rise in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) among school children may stem in part from ‘nature deficit disorder’–the growing alienation of humans, especially children, from the natural world. While Louv stressed that the term as not meant to be scientific or diagnostic, evidence shows that time spent in nature can increase creativity, speed healing, and reduce anxiety and depression – in kids as well as adults.

 

What can parents do?

Let kids go outside! Let them explore the yard or a local park. Crime is lower today than it has been in forty years so there’s no reason to keep the kids in. Some of them may resist—if they’re used to being entertained, it may take them a little while to get into the groove of playing by themselves. But I guarantee, given the chance, most kids will take to free outdoor play like, well, kids – because it’s what they’re built to do.

What are your memories of playing outside as a child? Were you allowed (or expected) to entertain yourself or did you spend time in organzied activities? What do you think about the state of children’s play today? Let us know in the comments below! 

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Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam.  She loves to talk about kids, parents, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and opinionated public speaker and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.