Prescription for Play

Imagine a treatment that would improve your mood, make you smarter, keep you healthier and improve your relationships.  How much would you invest in that therapy?

Turns out there is such a thing, and best of all – it’s free.  It’s called “nature.”

How many of you were told as youngsters by a parent or grandparent – “Just go out and play”?  And then you did just that.  You’d go out for hours after school, just exploring the backyard, or the woods, or the playground, with your friends until it was dinnertime.

I am afraid we have lost touch with the value of free time and play, especially for our children.  What better time than summer to re-focus on the lost art of simply playing outside?

We have overscheduled children frantically trying to keep up with their overscheduled parents in our 21st century world where relaxation time must be planned as well.  Play-dates have replaced free play, often booked weeks in advance as parents link up their PDA’s to ensure kids can hang out together.

I know, I know, it’s a different world now.  The ability to pay “partial continuous attention” is a highly valued skill these days. Parents feel the pressure to prepare their children for the “real world” they’ll face. Globalization forces us to compare our educational systems not only to those of neighboring towns but to those of other countries half-way across the world. I am not so naive as to believe we can turn back the clock and remove all stress from life. Indeed, as researcher Hans Selye noted, stress is not necessarily a bad thing; it is simply “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand.” So we must focus on teaching our children not how to avoid demands per se but how to develop better coping mechanisms.  One of the best ways, it seems, is to promote free, unstructured play – especially in natural, outdoor settings.

More and more research is pointing out the costs of hectic childhoods and lack of time spent in outdoor settings.  Richard Louv, author of “The Last Child in the Woods,” aptly termed this phenomenon, “Nature-Deficit Disorder.”  His Children and Nature Network was specifically created to encourage us to reconnect with nature.  A mounting number of research studies highlight the positive impact of free outdoor play on children’s emotional and physical health.  A study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (Burdette HL, Whitaker RC: Resurrecting free play in young children: looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation, and affect. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 159: 46-50) highlights the physical toll on our children: “We propose that efforts to increase physical activity in young children might be more successful if physical activity is promoted using different language-encouraging play-and if a different set of outcomes are emphasized-aspects of child well-being other than physical health.”

Another study, published in the American Journal of Public Health (Kuo FE, Taylor AF: A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: evidence from a national study. Am J Public Health 94:1580-6), demonstrates the positive effects of outdoor play on children with ADHD.  The American Academy of Pediatrics authored a seminal report, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” written in defense of play and in response to forces threatening free play and unscheduled time.

Not that we necessarily have to develop an evidence-base to feel good about recommending free, unstructured play for our children, but in this crazy world where some towns actually schedule one night a year for families to be together and relax, we need all the help we can get.

How can we create such a place?  Psychologist Michael Thompson, author of “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys,” recently blogged about a wonderful lost world he re-discovered.  He describes this world….

“… where people sit down and eat three meals together every day, serving their food from platters and talking with one another throughout the meal. A world where ten-year-olds set the table for dinner and take all the dishes back to the kitchen when the meal is finished, without complaint. A world where thirteen-year-old boys don’t play video games every night, nor do they watch TV or sit in front of computers. Instead, they lie on their beds and read comic books and graphic novels, sometimes even grown-up novels. In this world I saw eleven-year-old girls walking together and holding hands as they walked back to their cabins. Right out in the open. No girls there send mean instant messages to one another; they don’t I.M. at all. Instead, they sing. When they are making their beds (yes, they make their beds every morning) and sweeping out their rooms, they sing together. First one starts to sing a song, and then the others join in, spontaneously. There is no adult leading them.”

Doesn’t this sound too good to be true?  What Dr. Thompson is describing, of course, is summer camp.  I bring up this example not to suggest that all children should go to summer camp or that all families can afford or would choose to send them.  It is but one example of finding space for children to literally unplug and just be.  Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could create this world somewhere in every community?  This is a major socioeconomic challenge.

First Lady Michelle Obama is one of those taking on this challenge.  Her “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity recently launched a complementary  initiative – “Let’s Move Outside”

– to expressly promote having fun and getting fit in the great American outdoors.  “America’s Great Outdoors”, in fact, the name of an initiative announced this spring by President Obama in part “to help families spend more time outdoors, building on what the First Lady has done through the Let’s Move Initiative, to encourage young people to hike and bike and get outside more often.”

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, during the press conference to announce the initiative, commented:

“80% of Americans now live in urban areas, many with limited access to clean and safe open spaces… Americans are losing touch with those historical places where our nation was formed, sites that bind us with a shared heritage. Our children spend half as much time outside as their parents once did as we face an epidemic of childhood obesity… Innovation and collaboration will be required to meet these challenges. A start has already been made. Tens of thousands of young Americans actively participating in youth conservation organizations taking root across the country. A new generation reconnecting with nature as they build trails, plant trees and restore the land.”

We must join with and support our children in this movement.  There are many obstacles to our success in this endeavor, but we must see these challenges not as insurmountable barriers but as opportunities to create a healthier world.

Enough reading (and writing) already– let’s get outside and play!

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