Let Kids Be Kids: Go Play Outside!

Posted on January 20, 2014


The most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practised by children in play.

– Peter Gray

Okay, raise your hand if you grew up in the 1950s, 60s, or 70s.  The days of small houses, no personal computers, no cell phones or Facebook, few sports leagues or “play dates.”  The days when our parents threw us out of the house to go play with all the other kids, unsupervised, until dinnertime.  We played on monkey bars and in streams and ponds, climbed trees, biked miles away from our houses… all the things that kids today are practically banned from doing.  We were trusted with pocket knives, slingshots, cap guns, even the occasional BB gun.  Rarely did a kid put anyone’s eye out with those things.  We learned, in our own ways, to get along with each other, to be self-reliant in new environments, to be physically confident in our abilities, and to challenge ourselves… things that seem to be in short supply among kids these days… and among their parents.

It’s not just our imagination.  The Encyclopedia of Children’s Health reports that by about age four, children can typically run, jump forwards and backwards, hop on one foot, and throw and catch accurately.  Yet just one year ago, the Chair of UK Sport expressed concern that increasing numbers of eleven-year-olds were starting secondary school unable to run, jump, or throw a ball.  Her solution, though – better physical education in the schools – is probably not the best way to go about it.  It seems that a big cause of our youth’s  “physical illiteracy” is too much time in schools, too much time studying, too much organized sport, too much adult supervision, too many play dates… and not enough free play with their peers.  Adding yet another organized PE class isn’t going to help much with the larger issue.

If you are in any way connected with children, and especially if you are raising or teaching children – please read Peter Gray’s article, “Give Childhood Back to Children.”  It is spot-on.

As he illustrates, an ongoing decline in play has been accompanied by a decline in empathy and creative thinking, and a rise in childhood mental disorders, narcissism, anxiety and stress.  Free play with one’s peers  is essential to learn physical skills, but more than that: it is essential to learn to control our impulses, emotions, and fear; it is essential to learn empathy, cooperation, and compromise.  It is the foundation upon which we build our personal relationships, upon which our real problem-solving skills are based.   And free play needs to be more than just free and unsupervised:  it needs to be outsideA 2004 study found that “green outdoor settings” seemed to reduce the severity of symptoms in children diagnosed with ADHD.  In my own childhood, we kids were sent outside to “burn off energy,” and in school, we felt refreshed and alert after recess.  Small wonder that today’s kids, deprived of these opportunities, suffer the consequences.  The thing is, society is suffering the consequences too.

One of those consequences is the increase in generalized, vague but ubiquitous fear among our population.  I have noted before that it seems we have no risk-assessment abilities anymore; we are unreasonably afraid of too many things.  Pedophiles lurk on every corner.  Schools are locked down for a thermometer or a toy Nerf gun… or a conversation about a toy Nerf gun.  We sacrifice our Constitutional rights with little outcry in the face of “terrorism” (I cannot imagine WWII vets in their prime putting up with the ongoing 21st-century Orwellian assault on our liberties in the name of “security.”).  This – sorry, but I can’t stand it – this pussification of America, too, may arise in part from a population that has had too little self-directed play for too many generations now:

Researchers have raised young monkeys and rats in ways such that they are allowed other types of social interactions but are deprived of play. When these animals are tested, in young adulthood, they are emotional cripples. When placed in a moderately frightening environment, they overreact with fear. They panic and freeze in a corner and never explore the environment and overcome the fear as a normal monkey or rat would. When placed with an unfamiliar peer, they may alternate between panic and inappropriate, ineffective aggression. They are incapable of making friends.

Some people object, on moral grounds, to experiments in which young animals are deprived of play. What a cruel thing to do. But consider this: over the past 50 to 60 years, we have been continuously decreasing the opportunities for our own children to play.

I can vouch for that, sort of.  I once had a West Point cadet in my office as a summer intern.  In describing the grueling hours that the Academy can inflict on its cadets, she remarked that it wasn’t too much of an adjustment for her because she had participated in sports while in high school.  Imagining my own participation in sports in high school, and comparing it to the long hours at West Point, something wasn’t making sense… until she clarified that in high school, she had so many activities lined up after school that often, she didn’t get home until 9 PM… and then had homework to do.

Sorry, but when a high-school student’s schedule doesn’t seem to change much when she enters West Point, that’s a sign that we need to back off and let the kids be kids.  Is it too much to ask for a couple of hours of play and an early bedtime?


UPDATE:  Check out this story from New Zealand!  What happened when schools gave recess back to the kids, and abolished all playground rules.