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The Epidemic of Play Deprivation

Why our kids need the freedom to play — now more than ever

Heidi Borst

Published on: June 29, 2021

girl climbing on her hands and knees across a log spanning a creek in pacific northwest woods

Physical activity has far-reaching benefits to our kids’ physical and mental health, from decreasing their risk of anxiety and depression to lowering their odds of developing type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, obesity and other ailments. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children ages 6–17 need at least an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise each day. The problem? Today’s kids aren’t even coming close to meeting this minimum requirement. (In 2017, fewer than one-quarter of kids were getting the CDC’s recommended amount of physical activity.) 

A lack of physical activity was a major problem even before the pandemic, and play deprivation has increased dramatically during the past year. What’s more, experts say we’re going about play all wrong: Kids’ play today is too regimented, too structured, too routine. What our kids really need is the opportunity to take risks in play — it’s how they grow. While the problem of insufficient physical activity may not have an overnight solution, there’s plenty that parents can do to support and encourage their kids’ development through play.

The ‘State of Play’ report for Seattle–King County

Fewer than 19 percent of King County’s kids were getting the CDC-recommended amount of physical activity before the pandemic, according to a 2019 report published by the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership in Athletics in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. Now that number is likely in the single digits, or close to 10 percent, estimates Julie McCleery, Ph.D., the director of research-practice partnerships and a research associate and lecturer at the University of Washington. McCleery, who is part of a local coalition to remove roadblocks to physical inactivity for King County children, says the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities among the area’s youth. 

To be clear, the issue of play deprivation isn’t just a local one. “Play and physical activity are not seen as critical parts of youth development [in America]. We, as a society in general, don’t understand or value the importance of play enough to set it as a priority in our policies and in our funding,” says McCleery. Coming out of the pandemic, kids need the opportunity for free play and physical activity to heal from the trauma they experienced and to propel their physical and mental resilience, she says.

During lockdown, we’ve seen an accelerated version of what’s been going on in kids’ lives over the past 30–40 years: a gradual shrinking of time and space for freedom and play, says Tim Gill, author of “Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities.” “I hope we’ll have learned that kids really hunger for some freedom, some autonomy and, particularly, for the chance to play with their friends. When schools were closed, kids were under house arrest, and the consequences of that have been brought home to us. Free play is a vital ingredient of a healthy and happy childhood,” says Gill.

‘Risk’ factor: The way kids play is important, too

As the world continues to slowly open back up, it’s tempting to throw our kids into all the scheduled sports and activities we can to make up for lost time, but doing so limits their time to engage in free play. “Risky play,” a concept that’s gaining momentum worldwide, is vital, too, and though the term may trigger alarm bells for parents, it’s not as scary as it sounds. 

“Kids describe risky play as a ‘tickles in my tummy’ scary/funny feeling,” says Mariana Brussoni, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, an investigator at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital Research Institute and an academic research scientist at the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit. Brussoni defines risky play as “thrilling or exciting forms of play where children engage with uncertainty, and there’s a chance of physical injury.”

Sure, uncertainty makes us uncomfortable, especially when and where our kids’ safety is involved, but an element of unpredictability is the point of risky play, says Brussoni. “Risk is a critical and necessary feature of play; it’s embedded in our world everywhere, and experiencing risk through play helps kids [learn to] manage risks in other situations. They’re pushing themselves past their previous limit to see how far they can go.”

“It’s fun, but it’s also challenging, and it also could be scary. Basically, it’s children’s play that makes adults nervous,” says Rusty Keeler, a playscape designer and author of “Adventures in Risky Play: What Is Your Yes?” Kids naturally push limits, but parents often hold them back out of fear they’ll get hurt. “We’ve reached a point as a society where we have so much fear, we’re almost stopping children from being children. Fear has limited children’s play and range so much,” says Keeler. 

boy in mid air leaping off a swing

Letting go of fear gives kids room to grow

Rushing in to intervene at the first sign of danger robs kids of the chance to develop an inner guidance system of their own, one that will keep them safe for the rest of their life, says Keeler. When we are solely focused on all the ways our child might get hurt (maybe they’ll fall, scrape their knee or bump their head), we lose sight of all of the positive outcomes, he says. 

Assess the risks versus the benefits before you decide that an activity is off-limits. “It’s up to the adults to take an inventory of when they say yes and when they say no. You start to think, maybe I could say ‘yes’ a little more, and then provide opportunities for free play. If there’s a pile of loose lumber, you might think, yeah, they could bump themselves, but they could also build an obstacle course. They’re being creative. They’re using construction skills. They’re learning math skills,” he says.

If you find yourself struggling to let go of control, Keeler says to take a deep breath and then think about what you want for your child. Look beyond your fear to imagine the kind of person you want them to become: Independence, resilience and autonomy only blossom when we give kids the freedom to make choices and take chances of their own accord.

Still, we can’t flip a switch from an overprotective to a carefree parenting style, so remember that you’re on a journey, Brussoni says. “You’re not going to go from hovering over your child to letting them walk to school on their own from one day to the next. You have to start with steps that feel manageable. Identify something that you can do today,” she says. 

The next time anxiety overcomes you, try counting to 17, suggests Brussoni. Counting gives you an opportunity to reflect on whether you really need to step in — if you don’t, what’s the worst thing that might happen? “Is it a question of a limb being lost, or might they just fall down and scrape their knee?” she says.

Time, space and freedom

Kids need the freedom to learn from their own experiences and mistakes, Gill says. “Every parent wants their child to grow up to be capable, confident, independent, responsible and resilient. We help move them towards that goal by opening up as much space and time as we can to be in a stimulating environment that sparks play … ideally with other kids around,” he says. Learn to use your peripheral vision, being mindful of what your kids are doing without being poised to leap in at the first sign of a problem, he says.

Kids engage best in play spaces where they can take ownership. “The traditional playground equipment structure gets old after a while, especially if it’s in your backyard — you visited it, you’ve been there and you can do those five or six things that it was designed to do,” says Keeler.

When the choice of where to play is left up to them, “kids choose what we call ‘leftover spaces,’ like ditches, ravines, back alleys and corners of parking lots, [where] adults aren’t going to chase them away,” says Brussoni. While we can’t control what’s available at our local playground, we can be open-minded about what qualifies as an appropriate space for play. When in doubt, ask your kiddo.

The freedom our kids need to thrive is only possible when our parental attitude shifts away from fear. “Fear and uncertainty are just part of life — they’re everywhere, especially during the pandemic. Our job as adults is to try to manage the real hazards that would lead to really serious injuries [such as broken glass or a live electrical wire], so kids are able to figure out for themselves the kinds of risks they want to engage in” says Brussoni. 

How to create a fun free-play environment

Everything is predetermined in today’s playgrounds, and that’s a problem, says Susan G. Solomon, Ph.D., author of “The Science of Play: How to Build Playgrounds That Enhance Children’s Development.” Since she wrote the book in 2014, Solomon says there’s been little forward movement to adapt children’s playgrounds into spaces that incorporate an element of risk. “I think for kids really to succeed, there has to be exploration. There has to be a sense of the unknown. There has to be a sense of danger,” she says. 

To incorporate risky elements into your own backyard, Solomon recommends providing kids with things to build with and places to hide. Repurpose anything you might consider “junk” — your kids will probably love playing with it.

With loose parts and natural materials at hand, such as “sand, mud, sticks, rocks, crates, boxes and tarps,” kids can use their imagination to shape their environment, says Brussoni. “Even when you have a play space you think is not so great, adding some loose parts to it really makes it so much better. [Kids] can build things or they can tear things down — it’s up to them,” she says.

Keeler’s own backyard is filled with “tons of loose parts” (tires, boards, logs, old frying pans, buckets, shovels and spoons) that his 5-year-old and 9-year-old can play with. “It might seem like it’s riskier, and it may look a little more like a junkyard, but it really gives them the opportunity to have power over their own environment, and that makes them resilient and confident. Maybe they do have more of an opportunity to get scratched or bumped or bruised, but they’re also given the opportunity have fun and reach their full potential,” he says. 

When we allow our kids to explore and test the waters on their own, we help them on their journey of developing into confident, capable individuals. On the flip side, hovering over our kids with constant reminders to “be careful” or “watch out” limits their growth. When it comes to play, the best thing we can do for our kids is to loosen the reins and let them take control. 

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