My son made it quite clear he doesn’t want to join anything this summer. That made me feel anxious.
It seems every kid in the neighbourhood, from as young as two, will at least be playing soccer or going to day camp or doing swimming lessons. What’s wrong with my kid? In his words, “Mom, I just want to play.”
Admittedly, he’s been saying this for years, and the poor kid’s not even seven yet. But every year, anxious about his well-being -- will he have enough structure? will he learn to be a team player? -- I force him into some basketball course or music class to offset what I view as a lack of general structure in our lives.
It turns out, however, that structure is pretty much killing our kids. Not only is it making them more anxious, but it’s denying them the opportunity for natural play experiences that are essential to children’s core development, including observation, problem-solving and risk-identification skills.
Health scientists have also noticed a severe decline in children’s gross motor abilities over the past twenty years, which they attribute to the predominance of play in man-made parks and on structures, rather than on natural terrain. They’re also not getting as much fitness benefit from indoor gym-time or organized sports as they would left to their own resources in a field, believe it or not.
Kids are being pushed into structured activities at much younger ages than ever before -- the stress on early education and the necessity of daycare environments means kids spend three-quarters of their day inside, often just sitting around. Even when the kids are thought to be exercising, many are actually sedentary. Up to 60 per cent of kids will stand at a play structure rather than use it. In organized sports, they often spend as much time sitting on the sidelines as they do actually moving. And the science backs this up.
To summarize, this generation of “structured” children are more likely to be overweight, anxious and lack creativity than the generations of their parents or grandparents.
Believe it or not, just letting the kids play, particularly in natural environments, is about the best thing we can do for our children. Playing in nature has some important connotations for education, society and their health as well.
For one thing, it can mitigate bullying. In natural play areas -- unlike on play structures -- researchers have noted in numerous studies that social hierarchies diminish. In nature, kids are more collaborative, creative and even shy kids assume leadership positions once in a while.
Exposure to nature can improve their school work. Kids that spend time in nature are more attentive and do better on tests. Even just having a plant on a kid’s desk can make a difference.
It will make them healthier in every way. Kids who are allowed to just play, rather than forced into structured activities, are more physically fit, less likely to experience symptoms of attention disorders and have overall less anxiety.
I know there will be people reading this who say, “but my child thrives in a structured environment. Why should I deny her the opportunity?”
I would say that you and your child are victims of modern thinking, like me and everyone else. But take a moment and calculate how many hours per day your child spends in a structured environment – school, daycare, lessons, homework. How many hours a day is she sedentary? How many hours per day is she indoors, regardless of the activity? Most children spend about three-quarters of their days inside. Sadly, just being “contained” with four walls and a ceiling is ruining their eyes because they don’t challenge and stretch themselves to take in long views or investigate microscopic objects.
Now think about the last time you just stood in the background while she played in the dirt. Of all the activities noted above, playing in the dirt is the most likely to determine her future success and, more importantly, her happiness.
We think, as parents, that kids need structure. We are told that it’s important they learn to follow rules, that they learn to read early. We brag to our friends when our kids write the alphabet at three-years-old. But the reality is, the future leaders are the kids with mud on their hands and the ones climbing trees. They’re the ones who will be innovative. They’re the ones less likely to be a burden on our medical system. They’re the ones who will do well in school and life. They’re the ones who will be happy. They’re the ones we should be emulating.