Former Extension Educator, Family Life
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Thursday, June 2, 2016
Red Rover, Red Rover Send my Childhood Back Over
During my childhood, there was much free time when kids were unsupervised. We roamed the neighborhood from each other's homes, we rode our bikes all around and we were supposed to behave and watch out for each other. We were expected to be home in time for dinner and then back out we went until the street lights came on. We had full access to the TVs in our house but it was our friends and our imaginations that entertained us. Our structured time was in school. Our sports/hobbies had set seasons or time-frames and didn't run year-round. Often you played more than one sport and it was encouraged not discouraged. Parents didn't manage disagreements among kids; they let us work them out for ourselves.
My childhood would be an actual description of free play: when children are free to select what to play when they want to play and with whom they play. Some take free play a step further and think of free play as meaning outside play. Not all free play has to happen outside but it may mean you have to have free range to go somewhere.
Stop for a moment and think about:
- How you spent your summers as a child?
- How you spent your evenings and weekends?
- Did you ever play an organized sport on a Sunday morning or a Sunday ever?
- Where did you play? – In your yard? At a friend's house? Neighborhood? At a local park?
- What games did you play? Were they structured? Make believe? Board games? Simply a pick-up game/sport?
- Who did you play with?
Now, think about the kids today, your kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews. Think about what their schedules look like, how they fill their time and what they are all involved in.
Kids are often in many organized activities daily. Some of these are simply for daycare reasons before and after school care and others are activity related. Children's play time is often organized by parents, supervised by parents and involves parents. It is important developmentally that children learn to play and initiate activities on their own and don't rely on or need another person or a tech device to always entertain them. Don't get me wrong, it is really good for parents to be involved and to interact but not to the extent of the hovering helicopter parent.
So why aren't parents shooing their children outside like our parents were 25-30 years ago? Fear is the biggest reason or barrier. Fear of traffic safety, fear of physical safety and fear of abduction. We all need to know our neighborhoods and have certain boundaries that our children can explore that we feel are safe for them. Choose this space based on their competency and maturity level. Teach them about road and bicycle safety. As they get more able and responsible, then you can expound their boundaries.
As far as physical safety, children learn by doing and exploring and with that come a risk of injury. There are going to be bumps and bruises and for some, breaks. It is important for families to know their neighbors. Children should know who they can turn to if something should happen and a parent isn't home or if they are closer to someone else's home than their own. As the saying goes, "It takes a village to raise a child."
When looking at research and crime-related safety, kids are statistically safer today than in years past. The public's perception of crime is higher and sensationalized due to all of the media outlets but actual crime and threat towards children by a stranger is much lower than that of crimes towards children by a family member or acquaintance. We can teach our children about stranger danger and safety in numbers but there is also a need for educating our children about inappropriate touching, but that is a topic for another day.
Other barriers for kids to free play are lack of free time and time spent on technology. Today's kids have never known a world without a computer, an iPod or a cell phone. They use multiple modes of technology each day between their gaming devices, TVs, computers, etc. or their phone can do it all. Either way, it is good to have some boundaries about how much screen time a child has each day. There are many research studies that link sedentary lifestyles with obesity and chronic health conditions.
And the final barrier to free play that I want to bring up is their lack of free time due to their involvement in multiple organized activities. Organized sports and membership groups are great for skills development. However, we need to remember that these are children who are in a structured environment all day and they too need some down time. So, if they are constantly being run from activity to activity, even if they enjoy the activity, at some point it will wear them down and no longer be fun or enjoyable. Times have changed and some kids today are over-scheduled and extremely supervised and it comes at a cost.
Research has shown that a lack of free play for kids today has caused:
- A rise in mental disorders. Kids are five to eight times as likely to meet the criteria for major depression and or have an anxiety disorder because they feel they have little or no control over their fate. Without free play kids don't have time to take control of their own lives and to discover and explore what they like. They are too busy being sheltered, evaluated, pushed and shuttled to and from activities often desired by parents.
- A rise in children presenting with sensory deficits. Less outdoor time on uneven surfaces exploring the different terrains are causing kids to have more balance issues because they haven't had the practice to adjust. When they don't explore their surroundings by skipping, running, climbing and twirling their bodies – kids don't learn how to manage their bodies in relationship to space. They can also have adverse reactions to the feel of objects in nature such as grass, sand, mud, etc. things not exposed to regularly.
- Issues with social skills later in life. There are six factors of free play: spontaneity, choice, time, freedom, organization and goals. Do they choose to play alone, with another or in a group? Are they able to negotiate with their peers without an adult intervening? These are valuable social and work skills that carry over into adulthood relationships.
Free play offers children a time for self-discovery, exploration, a time to engage their imagination and skill development of their own interests. As a parent, our goal is always to protect our children but sheltering them from experiences and development sometimes can do more harm than good. We need to give them boundaries and establish rules. We need to develop our neighborhood "villages" so others can keep an eye on them when they are out of our sight. We need to be role models for how much time we spend in front of screens and on technology vs how much time we spend outside. Teach children about potential risks and how to negotiate risks to stay safe in our homes, our yards, our neighborhood and our communities.