Outdoor Play: Kids Do It Much Less Often

Playing — especially the outdoor type where kids run around playing tag, chase, street and ball games — is good for children and should be encouraged, child health experts say. But a national survey recently revealed a radical lifestyle difference and decline between children’s play today and that of their parents a generation ago. Fewer children are actually playing tag, kickball and other outside games, according to results of the Wisk Active Play Survey, developed in collaboration with Dr. Rhonda Clements, president of the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play and professor of education and allied human services at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. The benefits of play have long been studied and have been highly documented. Outdoor, active play helps children de-stress, inspires creativity and imagination, tests physical strength and improves team-building and social skills. “Being outdoors provides a sense of freedom, enabling children to discover and manipulate their environment. Through ‘free play’ outdoors, children learn by stimulating their imaginations and reasoning abilities,” Dr. Clements says. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, enjoying the outdoors is one of the most passionate joys of childhood. But playing imaginative, made-up games has decreased significantly — 78 percent of mothers participated in this kind of play while only 57 percent of their children do — and so has the amount of time children spend outdoors playing. In the survey, 70 percent of mothers with kids ages 3-12 reported that when they were children, they played outdoors every day, but only 31 percent said their children play outdoors that often; furthermore, 56 percent of mothers said they were typically able to play outdoors for three or more hours, as compared to 22 percent of children today. Findings also revealed that 85 percent of mothers agreed that kids today are playing outside less often.

So what gives?

Today’s kids are too busy watching television or playing at the computer, according to 85 percent of mothers surveyed. Safety concerns, such as fear of crime, are another reason for the reduction in outdoor active play, 82 percent of parents acknowledged. Parents’ busy work schedules factored in at 77 percent. Considering these factors, Dr. Clements points out, “It is not surprising in today’s cultural environment that children are not playing outside as often as they did years ago.” However, she adds, “Outdoor active play is a fun and fundamental part of children’s cognitive, social and physical development. Parents need to be given the tools to empower and encourage their children to desire outdoor play as this expands their learning and enhances their overall well-being.” Almost 100 percent of moms said they believe outdoor play offers children an outlet for reducing everyday stress, and 82 percent said such play enhances a child’s self-esteem and self worth. What’s more, over 90 percent said outdoor active play helps kids develop their physical, social and motor skills, and three-quarters said such play impacts social skills.

So what are parents waiting for? Let your kids out to play, Dr. Clements urges. “You do not have to completely disrupt your current lifestyle to increase the amount of outdoor active play with your children,” she says. “Children have wonderful imaginations. Just allow them time to go outside and get dirty.”

Here are a few good reasons why:

“Society at large wants children to develop an appreciation for nature and the only way to do that is to let them out to play,” Dr. Clements says. ”Outdoor play stimulates the child’s imagination, such as when they use common objects like a stick and turn it into a magic wand.” Safety concerns are valid, she says. “But try making outdoor areas safer a mission and if you find a great family place, communicate with other parents. Say: ‘I found this great place.’” She also suggests, “Rely on other parents. Instead of just scheduling single child play events, think about small groups of four or five.” Remember, she advises, the outdoors is not just for summer. “Year-round outdoor play is just as important. If you look back at previous generations, children were outside year round,” Dr. Clements says. “Even 15 minutes of play to a child can be critical.”

Fun in the Sun

Read to your children outside instead of inside, Dr. Clements suggests. Or try an interesting and easy "Alphabet Hunt" with your child this summer. Head outside and challenge your child to collect objects with names beginning with each letter of the alphabet.

One to Grow on

“The outdoors is the best place to practice and master emerging physical skills and experience the joy of movement, which is so essential if we hope our children remain physically active as they age,” says movement expert Rae Pica, an adjunct instructor at the University of New Hampshire and the author of several books, including Your Active Child. “Running and playing outdoors also helps burn calories and we have a childhood obesity crisis in our country,” Pica points out. Another perk: the sunlight stimulates Vitamin D production, which is crucial for getting calcium to growing bones.” Sunlight has also been shown to increases academic learning and productivity.”

To encourage more outdoor play, Wisk Laundry Detergent is sponsoring PlayDays across the country this summer. In New York City, PlayDay will be held at the Bronx Zoo, June 20 and 22, 10am-5pm. There will be seven kid-friendly, interactive play zones set up, including a giant anthill that children can climb and explore and a tree house. For everyday play tips or for more information on Wisk PlayDay, visit www.wiskplayday.com. Other resources that promote active play include:

• KaBOOM!, a non-profit organization that specializes in linking communities and corporations to build safe playgrounds: www.kaboom.org. • American Association for the Child’s Right to Play, which aims to protect, preserve and promote the child's right to play as a fundamental human right: www.ipausa.org.