No Child Left Indoors

"The opportunity for children to play at school is all too easily regarded as a luxury. But children, as well as their parents, are telling us how crucial it is."

Adrian Voce, director of "Play England"

It seems that every week there is a headline in the newspapers about recent trends of childhood obesity and poor health, along with the description of a new initiative to reverse these trends. Meanwhile, the time that most children spend in school has increased while the time allowed for outside play has significantly decreased. To any onlooker it would seem obvious that if we were to get children outside, we would have a greater chance of instilling healthy habits and an active lifestyle in future generations.

But unfortunately, social trends seem to work against such a commonsense approach. For example, the current culture of testing and constantly striving to raise standards has put pressure on schools to keep children inside the classroom, even though many experts strongly believe this to be counter-productive.

The Daily Telegraph reported a case in March 2009 of an infant school in the UK that abolished morning and afternoon playtimes and cut lunchtime to a half-hour, because, "The governors were concerned about the length of the lunchtime break. They are only very small children and an hour in the playground seemed such a long time for them." [i]

Meanwhile, in October 2009, almost two thousand school principals from a wide range of schools across the USA took part in a survey conducted by Gallup, which was one of the first nationwide polls of its kind, devoted to analyzing the current state of recess in schools. The irony speaks for itself:

More than eight out of ten school principals reported that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement

More than two thirds of school principals report that students listen better after recess and are more focused in class

96% of school principals believe that recess has a positive impact on social development

97% of school principals believe that recess has a positive impact on general wellbeing

Yet:

77% of school principals report taking away recess from children as a form of punishment

One in five school principals report that testing requirements have led to a reduction in time provided for recess in their school [ii].

Current research supports the opinion of these school principals regarding a link between outdoor play and increased concentration in the classroom. For example, a 2009 study by a team from the University of Illinois took a group of nine-year-olds and gave them tasks to do after either a twenty-minute rest, or a twenty-minute session walking on a treadmill. During the tests, the children wore an electrode cap to measure EEG activity. The researchers found that the children consistently scored higher on the tasks, with a higher level of accuracy, if they did them after the exercise rather than after being sedentary. Furthermore, the readings from the electrode caps showed that the children who had been on the treadmill were better able to focus and pay attention [iii].

Nobody is suggesting that putting children on a treadmill is the answer, but clearly, it would be in the interests of those pushing for higher academic standards to put more emphasis on quality outdoor provision. What we should be aiming for is not a quick half hour, or even an hour, in a barren playground. There should be a minimum of an hour in a rich outdoor learning environment as an absolute minimal requirement for children who are often in school for six hours or more each day.

It is not only testing and pressure for higher achievement in the classroom that causes cutbacks to playing outdoors. Social attitudes towards children's play have shifted in recent years, and this negativity has caused play to be curtailed for reasons that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. For example, a primary school in the north of England was recently reported to have banned games with hard balls and instituted a system of staggering playtimes for young children due to the threat of a noise-abatement notice coming from neighbors who objected to the sound of children at play [iv].

Meanwhile, in the USA, a 2012 survey in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, took a sample of almost 9000 preschoolers, and quizzed parents about whether or not they took their children outside to play on a daily basis [v]. Shockingly, although 93% of the parents said their neighborhood was safe, only 44% of mothers and 24% of fathers reported taking their children outside to play once a day. It seems that the sedentary lifestyle is commonplace across both sides of the Atlantic.

Many experts believe that fear is a major reason for parents keeping their children inside, where they feel that they are safer. "Stranger Danger" makes many parents cautious about allowing children outside. It is probably true that one reason for increased fearfulness is the advent of the internet. In the old days, people relied on newspapers and the evening news for information about crime. Nowadays, there are thousands of graphic and sensationalist articles online, with crimes reported from all over the world. This has created a strong belief that the danger of child abduction is far more common than it actually is. Of course, child abductions do happen, and nobody would ever want to downplay their seriousness and tragedy. Yet America's leading expert on predicting violent behavior and adviser to the CIA and the United States Supreme Court, Gavin de Becker, advises that a child "is vastly more likely to have a heart attack, and ... is 250 times more likely to be shot by a gun {in the USA} than be kidnapped by a stranger." [vi]

A 2010 survey of parents in the UK revealed some interesting contradictions in the public's thinking about danger [vii]. Thirty percent of parents most feared abduction by a stranger, and a further thirty percent most feared a road traffic accident. Only five percent were concerned about poor health in later life due to the child's level of physical activity. Meanwhile, forty-nine percent of the parents seriously underestimated the amount of exercise necessary for their child to be healthy. The actual chance of a child being abducted by a stranger is about one in a million, while the chance of ill health due to lack of exercise is estimated to be one in three. Tony Armstrong, chief executive of Living Streets, a UK organization dedicated to creating safe streets, commented, "It's certainly not wrong for parents to fear road accidents or abduction, but it is wrong that fear for children's health is put on the backburner especially when the statistics show that there is more chance that their children will suffer long-term health problems from obesity. 30% of our children are currently overweight or obese and if trends continue as predicted, we could be faced with a quarter of children being obese by 2050. Taking small steps such as increasing activity levels through walking to school is one way of reducing this risk." Yet, whatever the statistics, the fear of abduction is one of the reasons that we now have a generation of parents who keep their children indoors.

Along with the fear over stranger danger, society has become increasingly cautious about any possibility of accidents. Playgrounds have become increasingly controlled by codes and rules about the height, size and type of equipment that children of different ages can use. While nobody would argue a case for providing children with dangerous equipment, the result of this level of control is that, in many cases, we have removed the freedom for children to try new things to challenge their bodies and minds. Sometimes it seems that the level of concern about playground safety and fear of litigation over accidents has reached levels of paranoia, with the real losers being the children themselves.

A 2011 article in the New York Times posed the question, Can a Playground be too Safe? [viii] Journalist John Tierney interviewed a variety of psychologists, professors and researchers, and found that many shared the view that playgrounds have become too safe, because the emphasis on eliminating accidents has removed the element of adventure or risk in children's play. Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway, believes that "Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground." Sandseter observed children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, and identified six characteristics of risky play. These characteristics are:

  • Exploring heights
  • Experiencing high speed
  • Handling dangerous tools
  • Being near dangerous elements (eg water, fire)
  • Rough and tumble play
  • Wandering alone

The most common observed behavior was climbing heights. Sandseter noted that children would approach these risks in a progressive manner, building on previous experiences and stretching themselves more as they achieved mastery. If playground equipment wasn't high enough, it was too boring. Sandseter posits that by taking reasonable risks, children learn to tackle challenges successfully and without becoming fearful. In fact, many experts believe that children who have the occasional playground accident grow up to be less fearful than those who have been kept "safe".

Other researchers believe that the drive towards making play areas safer has inadvertently caused more accidents. David Ball, from Middlesex University in London, explains, "This sounds counterintuitive, but it shouldn't, because it is a common phenomenon. If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks. An argument against softer surfacing is that children think it is safe, but because they don't understand its properties, they overrate its performance. Older children are discouraged from taking healthy exercise on playgrounds because they have been designed with the safety of the very young in mind. Therefore, they may play in more dangerous places, or not at all." Laurie Johnson, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Arizona, gives an example of a climbing structure in a playground in Denver that children considered boring [ix]. To make things more interesting, they invented a very dangerous game of riding bikes around the structure and crashing into it!

Luckily, many schools and settings have recognized the need to imaginatively enrich and expand the use of the outdoors. There are examples of excellent practice in many settings, often with the early years providers leading the way with exciting, dynamic outdoor areas for the youngest children. But for many reasons, others are still sadly lacking, and the provision of high quality outdoor areas for six to twelve year-olds is frequently overlooked, leading to boredom and subsequent behavior problems within this age group.

Many school administrators acknowledge that they need help in providing appropriate outdoor experiences for their students. The same Gallup poll that reported the benefits of outdoor recess also showed that 89% of discipline-related problems occurred during recess or lunchtime. School principals called for an increase in the number of adults to supervise playtimes, the provision of better equipment for playgrounds, and training in playground management for staff. Providing these things for schools would clearly improve standards of behavior, and with the evidence pointing towards outdoor play also improving standards in the classroom, focusing on good quality outside playgrounds would seem to be a win-win situation for everyone.

However, some experts warn that the answer is not simply to buy expensive playground equipment and create manufactured outdoor spaces. In his acclaimed book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv argues that the problem for future generations is much greater than not spending sufficient time outdoors. Louv goes as far as to identify a condition that he calls "Nature-Deficit Disorder" [x]. Louv believes that not only are we failing to provide children with time and space to spend outdoors in nature, but we are actually "teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature." This Nature-Deficit Disorder is, in Louv's opinion, affecting children's mental and emotional health in addition to their physical health. The good news is that the deficit can be addressed, simply by giving children adequate time for unstructured play out in nature.

First, there has to be a willingness on the part of adults - both educators and parents - to ease up on the control and allow children time: time to play, time to explore, and time to create their own activities. Then, there has to be access to nature itself. This can be achieved through families and communities taking simple steps that cost very little and go a long way to addressing the deficit. Consider this: instead of a trip to the ice rink or soccer practice, a father takes his kids to the woods. When they get there, they hang out and see what happens. Maybe they dig for worms, maybe they hunt for bugs, maybe they collect leaves. Or maybe they gather logs and build a fort. Or maybe they just lie down among the trees and watch the clouds.

Or, perhaps even more radical for some families, instead of a vacation at a theme park, they spend a week at a national park. Or, instead of Computer Camp or Cooking Camp or Dance Camp or Science Camp, families resist the pressure to enrich their children's lives with extra-curricular activities during the summer, and send them to a simple summer camp instead. Imagine how some children would react to spending a week camping in the forest, with no TV, no organized sports, no computers and no Wii! With none of those distractions, they would have no choice but to get outside and connect with nature.

In the school setting, maybe instead of fund raising for a fabulous new jungle gym for the playground, PTAs can consider getting donations of logs and branches and topsoil for the yard instead. If children are left to create their own entertainment in a natural environment with trees, plants and mud, most of them can come up with hours of play without any help from adults - if they are allowed time to do it. After all, many of the older generation managed to play without organized activities when they were children. What has changed is society's attitude towards play, resulting in a tendency toward micro-managing children's time instead of allowing them to make their own fun.

Of course, in many cases, children need help to get started, because setting them loose in a wild playground with limited adult supervision might lead to total disaster! Given that school principals report that 89% of discipline problems occur at recess, it would seem that many children have become so out of practice with playing that they need help and mentoring as they develop their skills. For this reason, organizations such as Playworks work from the premise that:

"diminishing opportunities for unsupervised play in our society have left kids with a very thin understanding of how to manage their own play and that it is important to have grown-ups introduce some basic rules to make play work." [xi]

In some settings, children are going to need more help to learn play skills than in others. In addition, it is going to be more challenging to provide a natural play environment in some settings than in others. But, although it might not be possible for some settings to create natural and free play areas, educators can still think about the materials that they use and create areas that encourage children to connect with nature, and they can provide children with time to play freely outside. If children cannot successfully play, they do not need more discipline and punishment by withdrawing the facilities and opportunities for play. The children who "misbehave" at playtimes are telling us that they need more help learning how to play appropriately. After all, if a child struggles with reading, we don't totally remove his access to books!

If it is hard to bring nature into the setting, with a little creativity and imagination, adults need to take children out into nature. Not every outing needs to be linked to curriculum standards, and if schools can take busloads of children to museums, they can take them to nature. All children should have the right to be taken to the great outdoors, where they can play, unhindered by curriculum and worksheets. Furthermore, after spending a day outdoors, children should not have to write about the experience when they return to school the next day!

If as parents and educators, we really value the development of the whole child, we need to consider the provision of outdoor space carefully. Childhood is short, and the experiences of childhood create the adults of the future. If the current generation grows up being increasingly sedentary while relying on technology for entertainment, without any feeling of connection to the natural world, the current trend of increasing rates of obesity and mental health problems will never be addressed. Ironically, by simply giving children daily access to large open spaces to play, unhindered by the stress of a demanding curriculum and undistracted by computer games and technology, we could go a long way towards addressing the major health issues that face the next generation, and raise academic standards as we do so.

And once our children are outdoors, instead of slogans such as No Child Left Behind, how refreshing it would be to have a new slogan, No Child Left Indoors!

References

[i] School cuts lunchtime and replaces playtime, Daily Telegraph at www.telegraph.co.uk, 20th March 2009

[ii] The State of Play - Gallup Survey of School Principals on School Recess, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, February 2010

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Physical Activity May Strengthen Children's Ability To Pay Attention." ScienceDaily, 1 Apr. 2009. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

[iii] University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Physical Activity May Strengthen Children's Ability To Pay Attention. ScienceDaily, 1 Apr. 2009. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

[iv] BBC News, York and North Yorkshire, Selby School Cancels Outdoor Break in Row over Noise, 17th September 2010, at www.bbc.co.uk

[v] Pooja S. Tandon, MD, MPH; Chuan Zhou, PhD; Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH

Archives, Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine,. 2012

[vi] Gavin de Becker, Protecting the Gift - Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane), Dell Publishing, New York, 1999

[vii] Survey by YouGov for charities Parentline Plus and Living Streets, reported at www.bbc.co.uk/news, May 17th 2010

[viii] Can a Playground be too Safe? John Tierney, New York Times, July 19th 2011

[ix] That Upside-Down High Will Be Only a Memory; Monkey Bars Fall to Safety Pressures, New York Times, April 11th 1996

[x] Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods - Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Workman Publishing, New York, 2005

[xi] Playworks at www.playworks.org