Play: Serious Business!

by David Egan on July 15, 2011

Happy children playing together

Unstructured play is essential for child development - and helps kids to be physically active!

Did you play outdoors when you were a kid? Maybe you climbed trees, kicked a ball around with your mates, built a den, cycled round the neighbourhood on your bike, or just played hide and seek. If so, you’re a dinosaur. These activities are dying out – children nowadays are far more likely to be found parked in front of the TV or playing Xbox. What the hell happened to childhood? A recent UK study showed that:

  • Almost one third of kids have never climbed a tree
  • A quarter of children have never rolled down a hill
  • A third of children have never played hopscotch
  • One in ten children have never ridden a bike

The research was carried out in June 2011, amongst 2,000 parents and their children (aged 6 – 15). So what? Modern kids are probably really good at computer games, right? Maybe, but unfortunately they are paying the price!

What’s the Problem?

Kids need a lot of physical activity to be healthy – in fact, according to the clever people at the World Health Organisation, they need a minimumof 60 minutes vigorous activity every single day. As a parent and an Exercise Physiologist, I can tell you that there is no practical way for kids to get that much activity unless they are getting out and playing on their own. But it’s more than just good healthy exercise. Kids get a lot more from unstructured outdoor play – they learn how to relate to one another (without constant mediation by adults) and they learn how to manage risks. I’m not saying that we should place our kids into harms way – but by encouraging children to play outdoors, with a moderate amount of risk, they learn how to handle themselves. This is an essential part of growing up, and there is simply no substitute. Or to put it in more scientific terms: Active, unstructured play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children.

What Happened?

How did we end up this way? There are many possible reasons. For one thing, it is so easy to keep our children passive these days. Park them in front of the TV or a games console. When I was a kid, there was a limited number of TV channels. You watched the bionic man, and then you went out and pretended to bethe bionic man! Now we have satellite, cable, YouTube, you name it – there’s always something on.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation” Plato (428 BC – 348 BC)

Perhaps parents have become over-protective – of course, we all love our kids and want to protect them. Stranger danger and modern issues like traffic bring out the protectionist in us all – I still worry when my eldest son (who is 16) cycles round his friend’s house. We need to control the risk of serious danger, but have we gone too far? The problem is that in protecting our children, we went too far and controlled ALL risk.

The Solution

We need to let our kids back into the world by encouraging them out to play. We need to make sure that they are protected, but we have to give them a degree of freedom. We should take control of the TV and get our kids creative again. If there are barriers stopping our kids from playing outside, then we parents need to roll our sleeves up and knock those barriers down. Society has changed rapidly during the last few decades, but the basic needs of children remain the same. Proper food rather than over-processed junk, real play rather than passive entertainment, direct experience of the world rather than immersion in the virtual, and regular interaction with significant adults. Children are being pushed ever-rapidly into the adult world by enormous social pressures – perhaps they need space to be children, with the freedom to play in the time-honoured fashion. It’s up to us parents to make it happen! Please leave a comment – we’d love to hear your thoughts! If you liked this article, sign up for our newsletter or join us on Facebook. Coming soon: How to (safely!) raise a free-range child!

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