Children have become trophies for their parents and, like any trophy, must be kept in a safe place, preferably within the four walls of the house, where presumably they will always be safe. Indeed, the tendency close children inside to protect them from the dangers that lurk “out there” is increasingly worrying.
Children spend less time outdoor than prisoners
A recent study revealed that most of the children spend less time outside than prison inmates. This research analyzed the habits of 12,000 families with children aged 5 to 12 years old, and found that in over ten countries children spent an average of only 30 minutes a day playing outdoors.
This study also revealed that in the United States nearly half of preschool children does not go out to play every day. In the UK, the reality is not different: 64% of the children go out to play less than once a week and 20% never climbed a tree.
Interestingly, the researchers found no relationship between the time children spent playing outside and the household income or the perception of neighborhood safety level in the family. This means that it is a general trend that goes beyond the socio-economic status. The underlying problem is much simpler: most parents do not want their children to climb on the trees, chase frogs, get dirty in the mud or play alone with other children.
To put these figures in perspective, consider that the inmates of the maximum security prisons in the United States go outside at least two hours a day. It is a human right. It should also apply to children. But parents and schools are forclosing it and claim that children occupy this time in front of a digital screen.
In fact, if you ask people over 40 year old what are their best childhood memories, most will respond playing and having fun outdoors. However, many of today’s children will not have those memories, or at least will not be able to shape so many memories of that type. Currently only 21% of the children go out to play every day at the open air, although 71% of their parents were allowed to do it.
Why is it so important for children to play outdoors with their peers?
There are many good reasons because children should spend time outdoors playing, preferably with their peers.
1. They learn to make decisions, solve problems, control themselves and follow the rules. Playing outdoor without the supervision of an adult, it’s a good life lesson that teaches children to solve problems that arise. In fact, if they want to be accepted by the rest of the group they will be forced to check out some of their behaviors and follow the agreed rules.
To the extent that children interact with their peers learn to control themselves, make decisions and solve problems. These are basic skills that teach them that they have control on their lives, a feeling of power that protects them from anxiety and depression, quite common disorders that are often the result of the feeling of lack of control over their lives.
2. They learn to manage emotions, including anger and fear. Playing outside without parental supervision, children find themselves often in difficult situations, both physically and socially. If they want to get out of that successfully must learn to control their emotions. For example, it is likely that the first time a child has to climb a tree feel fear, but soon will dominate it, especially if he’s in front of his friends.
This way the child will learn to regulate his emotions and take control. He will learn that there are situations that are scary, but that fear can be overcome without feeling anxious or overwhelmed because there is no danger really. This natural “emotional education” will allow him to create a series of psychological tools that will be very useful in later life.
3. They learn to develop creativity. When children play outside the home feel more free, because prefer to engage in unstructured games that stimulate their imagination, creativity and intelligence. Imagining castles in the air, magical creatures or transform the branch of a tree in a sword stimulates neural connections and improves brain development.
On the other hand, playing outdoor allows them to explore the world around them and make surprising discoveries. The things they encounter on their path constantly stimulate their imaginations as are not toys designed for a specific purpose, but can have a thousand different uses depending on creativity. Therefore, children playing outside the home tend to focus more in detail and quickly learn to appreciate the little things in life.
4. They learn to be independent and responsible. When the kids are away from their parents and they can not act as mediators, they must learn to solve problems by themselves. This means they will need to consider several alternatives, try different solutions and perhaps make mistakes, until they find the answer they need.
This way children learn to be autonomous and independent, they gradually take responsibility for their lives realizing that their choices have consequences, and that these depend solely on them. In this way will be forming a safe and conscious adult.
5. They learn to develop passions and interests. At school, children often do not choose the activities in which they engage, they must follow the curriculum. In addition, many times strive to get good grades, a reward or a praise, but not because they are really interested in the topic.
Playing freely, on the contrary, is a unique opportunity for children to explore their own interests without pressure. In this case children can leave the activity when they feel bored, the ultimate goal is not the result, but enjoying what they do. In this way children learn to be passionate about what they do and they understand that beyond the results, they can enjoy the process.
6. They learn to make friends and to get along with others. The social game is a natural way to make friends and learn how to relate to others fairly. In fact, since the game is a voluntary activity and children can leave at any time if they feel uncomfortable, they understand immediately that to have fun they need their fellows players and will try to diplomatically handle the differences in order to continue playing.
The play, without the constant supervision of the adults, which often act as mediators, allows children to form their social skills, to be more sensitive and empathetic. Children learn very early to identify the emotions of others and respond accordingly. This way is stimulated their social intelligence, which is crucial for success in adult life.
7. They learn to be happy. Playing is not only a developing task, but also a source of happiness, satisfaction and well-being. Most children are happy playing outdoors with their friends. When they run, play, and are in direct contact with nature, their senses are stimulated, and this generates a lot of pleasant sensations.
Moreover, these kind of games helps them to release energy and, ultimately, create a pleasant feeling of tranquility. In fact, a study conducted at Cornell University revealed that children who live in the city and not spend much time in touch with nature show higher levels of stress and anxiety, compared to those who live in rural areas and often come out to play, which show to be even more resistant to adversity.
Therefore, we should not foreclose the children these amazing experiences, which are also a precious opportunity to grow. Don’t forget that children need to play, get out of the house and get dirty, this freedom will make them more secure and happy adults.
Berland, E. et. Al. (2016) Why dirt is good? RSPB.
Wells, N. M. & Evans, E. W. (2003) Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children. Environment and Behavior; 35(3): 311-330.