Archive for September, 2015

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).

risk taking eDSC00492

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

  • “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.

Time overparenting

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.



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I would really like to have your answer to this question. Please use the comment box to tell me – no names needed, just a rough idea of your age, e.g, 20-29, 30-39. Even easier – just select the activity that gave you most fun, your “funnest” activity as young Henry (see below) would say.

When you have done that (and even if you haven’t) take a moment to look at this YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=is5W6GxAI3c

Do you agree that the message is as clear as it is thought provoking? Even though the video was produced with commercial motives (Nature Valley is the maker of a canola bar) as well as children’s wellbeing in mind, it illustrates a trend that is real, widely documented and growing. And a trend that is very concerning because of its detrimental impact on children’s physical, emotional and social development as well as the realisation of their academic and creative potential. We may well find that it is also linked to the declining participation of young people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “Send children outside”, environmental educator, Marijke Hecht advises, “…[ because]… nature is the best training ground for STEM careers”.

Kate (one of my guest bloggers), who thoughtfully drew my attention to the video, reacted quite strongly to it:

I realise this is a scripted video but my heart did break a little to hear the young fellow say, ‘Whenever I feel upset I watch video games and I feel normal. It’s really wonderful.’  The idea of using electronics to self-medicate from difficult feelings concerns me deeply.  Surely as parents one of our most important roles is to be equipping our children with skills and strategies to work through difficulties and to build resilience through healthy means.  For our family, one of those strategies is to head outside to recharge, simplify and to connect with, and enjoy, nature.  

Her husband, Roo, registered an additional concern:

I felt the kids don’t know what they’re missing out on.  They think screen time is the best option but it seems they don’t have a lot of other experiences to compare it to.  

Kate and Roo live with their four children, aged 5 to 11, on a property in a beautiful part of north-eastern Victoria. The children are surrounded by nature and, for their entire lives,  have been encouraged to play freely, creatively and at times adventurously in the fascinating playground that starts at their back door.DSC00598

The children were shown the video by Kate and asked two questions: Q1. How did you feel watching the kids in this video?  Q2. What would you say to the kids in this video?

Here’s what they came up with…

Lochie Q1: I felt disappointed for them that they don’t go outside and play.

Lochie Q2: You should try putting the screens away and go on a bushwalk or do something outside.  I’m sure you’d really like it. 

Henry Q1: I felt very sad especially when the kid said ‘I would die if I didn’t have my tablet’ because I think they really are missing out on what’s outside.  I love riding my bike, playing in my tree house and just playing outside in general.  I just don’t think it’s very good for them to spend 3-4 hours a day on screens.  When we went to the Kimberley I jumped off waterfalls and walked up gorges and I loved how remote we were, it was the funnest part of my life so far.

Henry Q2: Just go outside and enjoy the beautiful world.  Try just going outside because it’s much more fun than playing on a screen.

Annie Q1: I felt sad because they are missing out a lot on the outside world. In the inside world you just blob around but when you’re outside you actually exercise yourself because you get to run around and become fit and healthy.  

Annie Q2:   I think you should go outside and stop playing video games, it’s much more fun outside.  

Pippa Q1:  I felt sad because there’s lots of fun things outside to do like bushwalking and playing.  They should play with a dog and build a treehouse and have sleepovers in it. 

Pippa Q2: Hello.  Go outside and play because you can build stuff and there’s lots of fun stuff to do.  It’s time to go outside and play!

As the saying goes, Out of the mouths of babes…

Moreover, it is not that Lockie and co are unaware of the world of electronic games and social media. They are modern kids exposed to that world at home, school and elsewhere. That makes them very capable of making the comparison that Roo refers to. And having made that comparison, they leave us in do doubt where their preference lies.

In my ideal world, all children would be in a position to make the same comparison and declare the same preference.

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