Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Kids & Play

I'm worried about our kids.

Yesterday, I started my day off with an 8 AM meeting with the middle school principal. The topic: playground football. Football (actually, all play involving footballs) has recently been banned from recess at the middle school. I wanted to know why. The answer? Injuries, aggressive behavior and liability.

Keep that answer in mind as you consider the conclusions of a study released today in the medical journal Pediatrics. The study’s title says it all: “Societal Values and Policies May Curtail Preschool Children’s Physical Activity in Child Care Centers.”

According to the study’s authors, ¾ of U.S. preschoolers are in some form of childcare. The vast majority of those kids is not getting the recommended amount of physical activity per day. (The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that preschoolers participate in at least 60 minutes of structured physical activity per day, and at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity. Preschoolers should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time, unless sleeping.)

Preschoolers at childcare, though, spend 70 to 84% of their time in sedentary pursuits, and only 2 to 3% of their time in vigorous play.

The researchers wanted to know why, so they interviewed scores of childcare owners and workers. They identified three main barriers to active play -

1) Injury concerns

2) Financial

3) Focus on academics

-and concluded that, “societal priorities for young children – safety and school readiness – may be hindering children’s physical development.”

Think back to my conversation with the principal. Football was banned from the playground due to injury concerns. During the course of our conversation, I learned that our district’s 4th graders now only get one recess a day instead of two, and that the time that was previously spent on a second recess is now used for extra math practice. Sounds like prioritizing school readiness over play to me.

As a parent, I’m concerned, and not just for my own children. I’m acutely aware that my boys need time to run around and explore. But I also know that all children need opportunities for physical play, and that kid-structured playtime can improve academic learning and social skills. I know that boys, especially, have a competitive, aggressive streak that needs to find a safe outlet, and that learning to manage that streak is an important part of the trek to manhood.

As a licensed nurse, I’m also aware of the potential for injury. Boy #2 played organized tackle football for the first time this year, and believe me, I paid attention to news stories and research about concussions. Like all parents, I want my kids to grow up safe and healthy. But unlike some parents and educators, I’m willing to let my kids take physical risks, because I believe that in most cases, the benefits outweigh the risks.

You see, when I say that I want my kids to grow up safe and healthy, I mean that in a most holistic manner. I value their physical health, but I also value their emotional, spiritual and social health. I want my boys to learn to value and honor their instincts. I want them to learn from nature. And I want them to be adventurous explorers of their world. (For the record, I’d want the same for my daughters, if I had any.)

So while I know that climbing trees is a risky endeavor (they could break an arm!), I let my boys climb. (With some restrictions: the rule at our house has always been that you must be able to get into and out of the tree on your own.) I let them climb because I understand that it’s important for kids to test limits, to stretch their muscles and imaginations and to spend time in nature. When it comes to tree climbing, I personally believe that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Same thing with football. Yes, my boys might get hurt. But I believe that the fun and exercise and enjoyment they get from the game – not to mention the practice of learning to play well with others – exceeds the risk. The odds are extremely good that one of my boys will be hurt in some way while playing football. But the odds are better that any injuries experienced will be minor compared to the benefits they’ll obtain by playing the sport.

Somehow, though, social policies and values have shifted to the point that we, as a society, are more concerned about protecting our children than facilitating their development. Many of the childcare workers interviewed for the Pediatrics study expressed concern about the amount of time their charges spent in sedentary play, but felt pressure from parents to minimize physical play and to maximize academic engagement.

In fact, the study authors conclude that pediatricians (the paper’s target audience) may be able to increase kids’ physical activity by educating parents. "Pediatricians,” they write, “may need to highlight for parents the many learning benefits of outdoor play…and reassure parents that active time does not need to come at the expense of time dedicated to ‘academics’ and ‘learning.’”

I’m sad that it’s come to this – that doctors now have to educate parents as to the importance of active play. But I’m determined to do my part. So for the next month here at Blogging ‘Bout Boys, we’ll be talking about the importance of play. Help me get the conversation started. What challenges do you face in your community? Do kids in your school district get recess? Do you ever feel pressure from other parents to restrict your childrens’ play? What do you think we, as parents, can do to re-emphasize the importance of play?


  1. I agree with you 100%. And I hope you don't mind if I do this, but I wrote a column recently titled "The Importance of Play in Children's Lives." It pretty much sums up my feelings on this subject. I also link to several interesting articles that I have found related to this topic. Here is the link to it: http://mamaofletters.com/2011/11/12/the-importance-of-play-in-childrens-lives/

    Thank you.

  2. Actively play WITH YOUR KIDS! Get outside and throw the football, play backyard kickball...change the rules to fit what space and numbers you have. We play 2-on-2 ultimate frisbee in the backyard. The scores ending up being ridiculous, but who cares? We spend money on health clubs and gyms, but the kids never see what we do there...they are stuck in the nursery area. Do push ups and crunches with babies during tummy time. Take walks together. Let them get messy and stain their clothes. I had a wonderful pediatrician that told me it wasn't the kids with the scrapes on their knees he was worried about, it was the ones without. Great post, Jen!!

  3. Too bad the principal didn't read the awesome book on how the brain works by John Medina.


  4. I agree with this 100%. Kids need to play and they need unstructured time to learn to entertain themselves.

  5. awesome article and I agree with you 100%! I take my son on a weekly basis for some active play at the park. He loves skateboarding and bike riding!

    I posted your article with link to your blog in my big boys meetup group! http://www.meetup.com/Big-Boys-from-Spring-and-The-Woodlands-Area/

    Thank you!

  6. Your school district is lucky to have you! Keep pushing them, otherwise fear will rule the day.

  7. There is just NO WAY my son could sit in a classroom. I know he would be asked to take something for ADHD or something. But his creativity and inventiveness would suffer!
    YAY for homeschooling busy boys!

  8. @Karen -- This has been the hardest part for me about sending 3 of my boys to school full-time. At home, we were in charge of and responsible for our own choices. I could let the boys play football, climb trees, etc. And I can still do those things, but for the 6 hrs. a day they're at school, they have to live by rules that don't necessarily take into account their true needs.

    @Andrea -- I'm trying. I sent an email to other parents, and so far only one other one has responded.

  9. I just found this great article at npr.org, "Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills." Interesting stuff:


  10. So glad you've made active play your focus this month. It's sad to see schools doing away with football and other forms of play. We should be teaching kids how to play safely and assess their own risk, not taking away opportunities to learn how to safely use their bodies. The less kids can play actively and in groups, the more likely issues arise (social, emotional and physical).

    I thought you might like to see this TEDx Talk "What Play Can Teach Us" by Jill Vialet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STYU-iz8bUQ

  11. @Beth -- I love TED talks! Can't wait to watch this one.

  12. Want to hear more of my thoughts on play? I have a blog post up at onlineschools.com as well: