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Where Do the Children Play? 

What happens when our kid’s only childhood memory is a screen?

One of our jobs as parents is to create childhood memories that will sustain them through their lifetime; memories that will be told around the campfire, at weddings, and even at funerals. Memories are so beautiful and heartfelt they make us smile, laugh, and cry. Lyrics from a Cat Stevens song illustrate real concerns regarding preserving childhood and play spaces: “We’ve come a long way, we’re changing day to day, but tell me where do the children play?” 

In the rush to digitize childhood, society seems to have forgotten critical essential components needed to create a sustainable child. Play spaces where children can run, yell, and be free to imagine other worlds are rapidly deteriorating without so much as a backward glance. 

Tall swings, long slides and merry-go-rounds were standard equipment in playgrounds of the past, and Toys “R” Us was a birthday and Christmas must. Children used to “play out” until dark and get into adventurous mischief because parents weren’t monitoring their every move. Students either biked or walked to school and participated in a vast diversity of after school sports and club activities. Recesses were long and PE teachers ensured they were packed with loads of gym, playground and game-type activities. 

Children seemed happy. Only 20 years ago, they seemed secure, well adjusted, and on their way to becoming independent adults with bright futures, and happy memories to sustain them through the tough times. 

Fast Forward to Today

Toys “R” Us went belly up after 70 years of providing kids with thrilling toys. Playgrounds are infantile and dilapidated with licencing forced removal of everything fun or challenging. Streets and parks are quiet and deserted. As epidemic levels of obesity climb, kids are dropped off at school where No Child Left Behind initiatives have eliminated PE and decimated recess. When students are allowed recess, they spend their time on mandated BYOD screens…sedentary, inside, alone, and sad. 

With the onset of video games and social media has come pervasive and escalating child behavior management issues including aggression, depression, anxiety and suicide. As outdoor rough and tumble imaginative play rapidly becomes a thing of the past, society might be wise to consider the following nature and movement-based initiatives to enhance child development, behavior and learning.

While parents have known for decades that nature offers serious benefits to our physical and mental health, the move from active outdoor play to passive and sedentary indoor screen watching has been pervasive and rapid. 

Citing ‘fear’ as a primary motivator, parents universally agree that outside is “not safe” and consequently keep their children inside. What is odd is the general acceptance by parents that online sites are ‘safe’ even with the alarming rise in online pedophile presence

Studies abound showing that nature’s ‘green space’ is the most attention restorative agent available to teacher to enhance learning, yet many students are kept inside during recess to finish work or as a disciplinary measure, or even worse, allowed to stay inside the classroom and gaze absently at their phones or watch movies. 

The downside of keeping kids sedentary, isolated and indoors is taking a heavy toll on our children. UBC’s Healthy Early Intervention Partnership study of 47,000 preschool children in 2016 showed 1 in 3 children enter school developmentally delayed, 1 in 3 are obese or overweight (Stats Canada), and 1 in 7 children and youth have a diagnosed mental illness.

The Solution: Let Kids Play

While our children have never been sicker than they are today, we can reverse this destructive trend through improved engagement in outdoor play by focusing on the following evidence based school, home, and community initiatives.

  1. Allow 3-4 recess breaks/day for research proven improved attention and learning, better grades, decreased need for movement ‘body breaks’ in the classroom, decreased problematic behaviors and improved self-regulation. A CBC interview with principal Paul McKay and classroom teacher recommends that every hour should be followed by a 15 min. break with improved attendance (up 5%), improved grades, happier students, less lethargy, and improved classroom participation. 
  2. Enhance existing playgrounds with age appropriate and challenging equipment. All playground equipment must be anchored in cement with 6-8” of absorbent surfacing to ensure safety (Canadian Standards Association) with coverage of structures for sun, rain, and snow protection. Think in terms of the following age groups each needing devices relevant to their age, inclusively arranged to accommodate people across the life span:
    • 0-5 years: infant/toddlers swings, saucer swing, slides, extensive trike path, covered sand box, water table, climbing structures.
    • 6-12 years: merry-go-round, high swings/slide, cargo net structure (Lunar Blast), climbing wall.
    • 13-18 years: obstacle course equipment.
    • Teachers and parents: cardio stepper, large covered fire pit with surround seating.
    • Elders: benches, picnic tables, covered areas.
  3. Start each day outside with a school ‘tough mudder’ run or inside in the gym with an obstacle course and loud music. Do one class per day outside.
  4. Allow alternate forms of creative physical play throughout the day. Allow students to build forts or use a variety of construction type materials and ‘loose parts’ (anything that’s not bolted down).
  5. Reduce rules and increase risk and challenge while also maintaining a safe and congenial play environment. Making playgrounds more dangerous with less parent/teacher intervention and more loose parts promotes creativity and imagination, while also improving independence and self motivation. Consider creation of a rough and tumble play zone for those kids who need more intense play opportunities. No Rules Schools actually improve behavior and enhance learning!
  6. Establish sensory-motor room in schools with inclusion of the following areas: hangout space (couch, carpet, bean bag chairs), chillout space (quiet space behind bookcase with bean bag chair), and workout space (TRX Strapping, slam balls, free weights, exercise bike/rowing machine/elliptical). EA’s could be assigned to this room 2-3 times per day at designated intervals and students sent there to have their sensory and motor needs met (as opposed to being sent to the principal’s office).

Where Do the Children Play?

Our kids are spending more time on screens than ever before in the history of childhood. With video games, smartphones, and time wasters like YouTube scrolling, our kids are more anxious, stressed, and depressed. They need our help. Who knew that simply increasing their play time was the answer to the biggest problem in parenting today. It is time to rethink the sedentary lifestyle and go outside and play!

This article was originally published on May 24, 2019 by pediatric occupational therapist, biologist, international speaker, and author Cris Rowan who is passionate about changing the ways in which children use technology. Cris’s website www.zonein.ca, blog www.movingtolearn.ca, and book www.virtualchild.ca can be referenced for additional information. Cris can be reached at info@zonein.ca.