Thanks to the folk who accepted my invitation to share how they had fun as kids.
I thought afterwards that it might have been easier for you to recall one or two particularly memorable play experiences from childhood – ones that springs straight to mind.
When I set myself this task, these are some of the memories that flooded back:
- Jumping from places that looked very high to my young eyes
- Climbing 10 or so metres up a very straight poplar tree
- Hurtling down the side of a hill on a home-made sled
- Scrambling up openings in sandstone cliff lines
- Investigating the holes of trap-door spiders
- Swimming in quiet stretches of rivers and creeks
The fact that these are all outdoor activities does not mean that I didn’t enjoy playing indoors, especially with my “Ezy-Bilt” construction kit, my train set and my chemistry set. But it is significant that my most vivid memories are of outdoor play.
It is also very significant that all the activities on my list were risky to some degree. They all meet the scientific criteria of risk-taking play – thrilling and exciting activity that includes the risk of physical injury. The risk can be associated with height, speed, dangerous objects (e.g., knives, pointed sticks), dangerous places (e.g., cliffs, water, trees), body contact (as in rough and tumble play) and unfamiliar settings (where there is a risk of becoming lost).
Mostly, I shared the activities on my list with other kids including girls now and then.
Modern parents may be a little horrified that my mum and dad allowed me to engage so freely in risk-taking play. They might find it hard to believe that my parents were content to monitor my play rather than supervise it. Certain limits and conditions were set, but it was left largely to me to stay within those limits and to meet those conditions. And this approach to parenting was typical for children of my generation.
These days close parental management and supervision of children’s leisure activities are the norm. The pendulum has swung so far, in fact, that there is much talk in the scientific literature of “hyper-parenting”, which shows up in four increasingly common parenting styles:
- “helicopter parents” who try to protect their children from all dangers and solve all of their problems;
- “little emperor parents” who endeavour to satisfy all of their children’s material desires;
- “tiger parents” who push their children to be exceptional in everything they attempt and;
- parents who practise “concerted cultivation” (e.g., scheduling their children into several out-of-school sporting, cultural and academic programs in order to give them an advantage).
There is no way that my mum and dad were hyper-parents – but neither were they neglectful nor irresponsible. In giving me scope to play freely and sometimes a little riskily outdoors, they actually facilitated my physical, mental and social development in a number of very important ways. I say this not out of loyalty to them or as a sentimental gloss on my memories of a very distant childhood but squarely in the light of what research has revealed about the contribution that risk-taking outdoor play makes to healthy child development.
Here’s a snapshot of that contribution based on the findings of two high quality reviews of refereed research reports.
The positive effects of outdoor risk-taking play are:
- Increases physical activity to levels that reduce the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease
- Fosters the development of basic or fundamental movement skills basic (those required for activities like running, jumping, throwing, kicking, balancing and twisting)
- Encourages ongoing participation in outdoor play
- Reduces the incidence of sedentary behaviour
- Develops the ability to detect and assess risk and adapt behaviour accordingly
- Increases self esteem
- Develops social skills and the ability to deal with conflict
- Increases self-reliance and independence
- Improves emotional control, especially the management of anxiety and stress
- Strengthens personal autonomy
- Increases the tolerance of uncertainty and the readiness to try new things
There are slight differences in the risk-taking behaviour of girls and boys (girls are less into rough and tumble play for example), but the benefits for both genders are much the same.
BUT, what about the dangers of injury, abduction and assault associated with risky play? I can imagine many young parents asking. An understandable question, which I think any reasonable parent is entitled to ask.
Happily the answer from research is as encouraging as it is clear. First – “Broken bones and head injuries unfortunately do happen, but major trauma is uncommon. Most injuries associated with outdoor play are minor”. Second – “The odds of total stranger abduction are about 1 in 14 million (based on Royal Canadian Mounted Police reports) and being with friends outdoors may further reduce this number”.
Despite the availability of such reassurances, hyper-parenting shows no signs of falling out of favour in Australia and in other Western countries. The detrimental impact this is having on the physical health of our children is well documented. The mental health consequences may turn out to be equally worrying.
Writing in the American Journal of Play, Peter Gray points out that in the United States and other developed nations, the sharp decline over the past half century in children’s free play has paralleled a marked increase in the prevalence of anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism among children, adolescents, and young adults. He makes a strong case for saying that the decline in free play has contributed to this rise in young people’s mental health problems.
He summarises his case in this way:
Free play functions as the major means by which children (1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.
If Gray is correct, and I believe he is, how children play is not just a concern and responsibility for parents; it is an issue for all of us. There are actions, political and otherwise, that we all can take to promote healthy play in childhood — getting behind movements to “green” our cities and to “naturalise” children’s playgrounds, for example.