The Unsafe Child: Less Outdoor Play is Causing More Harm than Good

Categories: Health & Nutrition

The third grade classroom that was visiting our nature center for the day consisted of mostly boys–rowdy, loud and rambunctious boys. As we started out into the woods, the children spoke loudly to each other in anticipation of what was to come. After playing a quick game and explaining the ground rules, it was time for free play. As soon as the children realized they had the freedom to explore and build in the woods, something funny happened – they got really quiet. They dispersed and many of them started working together to build a large teepee.

Nothing gives me more pleasure then to see children contentedly building a structure using branches and logs out in the woodland. That is, until fear kicked in and everyone’s pulse increased a few notches at the shrill cry of alarm. 

“Put the sticks DOWN!” I looked over to see a chaperone running frantically towards the children. “Danger! Danger!” she screamed. Momentarily astonished by the sudden state of perceived emergency, I finally found my voice. “It’s okay,” I yelled over to her. “I said they could use the sticks as long as they respect each other’s personal space.” Speechless, the chaperone frowned, turned and walked to a group of nearby chaperones. I could have stopped the kids from building at this point, given into the fear and encouraged them to do something that our society would consider a little less risky. However, I decided to let the kids proceed with their project.

The children, with the help of a few excited adults, proceeded to build a massive stick teepee. “Look at what we built!” one of the boys said proudly, showing off their work. “Can you believe it?” another child asked excitedly.

During this time of construction, ironically, no child got hurt–not even a scratch. This is rare. Children usually get some bumps and bruises while playing in the woods. Getting scrapes, bruises, and even scars was like a rite of passage when I was growing up. No cuts, no scrapes, nothing on this day.

It was as if Mother Nature herself was trying to prove the fearful chaperone wrong, to show that children are capable of more then we often allow.

As a parent of two girls, on some level, I can empathize with that chaperone’s fear. Parental instincts often naturally take over and we shout, “be careful” or “slow down” as we watch a child manipulate their natural environment. This is fairly normal and common. However, as a pediatric occupational therapist that spends countless hours observing children play in a natural environment, I also know that restricting children’s movement and limiting their ability to play outdoors can cause more harm than good. 

As we continue to decrease children’s time and space to move and play outdoors, we are seeing a simultaneous rise in the number of children that are presenting with sensory deficits. The number of children that now need occupational therapy services to treat their sensory systems is on the rise. According to the New York Times, New York City public schools have seen a 30 percent increase in the number of students being referred to occupational therapy in the past four years. And they aren’t the only city seeing the surge of children in need of services. Chicago is up 20 percent in the past three years and Los Angeles jumped to a whopping 30 percent increase in the past five years. 

Secondary to restricted movement and less time outdoors on a regular basis, more and more children are walking around with underdeveloped vestibular (balance) systems. In other words, they have decreased body awareness and sense of space. Teachers are reporting that children are falling out of their seats in school, running into one another, pushing with more force during games of tag, and are generally clumsier than in years past. In fact, the more we restrict and coddle our children, the more unsafe they become.

A child’s neurological system is naturally designed to seek out the sensory input it needs in order to develop into a strong and capable individual. For instance, if a child starts jumping off small rocks, that is because their brain is ready for this type of activity. If a child is spinning in circles just for fun, it is because he or she needs that sensory input. If they climb a tree effortlessly, it means they are capable of doing so.

It is only when adults consistently step in and say, “no” to everything physical the child attempts that we start to see problems in development. “No climbing,” “no running,” “no playing tag,” “no spinning,” “no picking up sticks,” “no getting dirty,” “no jumping off the rocks,” “no climbing the rocks,” we yell when children attempt any kind of risk.

  Page Turn