Monitoring, structuring, and protecting reduce children’s activity and health.
Most of my writing about children’s free play has been about the mental health benefits (e.g. here), but in this essay I’m concerned with the physical health benefits. Children are designed, by nature, to play often in physically vigorous ways. That is how they develop fit bodies and the capacity for graceful, well-coordinated movement.
Over the past several decades, children’s opportunities to play freely and vigorously have been greatly reduced, and over this same period their physical fitness has declined. Here I’ll summarize some of the research showing how our practices of monitoring children, structuring their activities, and protecting them have reduced their physical activity and health.
Adult-supervised trips to the park cannot substitute for free neighborhood play.
In decades past, children from about age 4 or 5 on up spent huge amounts of time playing outdoors in the neighborhood, with other children, with no adults present. Today such play is rare, and parents who permit it are at risk of being accused of negligence. In an attempt to compensate, parents may take their children to the park or put them into adult-directed sports; but research shows that this does not make up for lost free play.
In a study conducted in Zurich, Switzerland, in the early 1990s, Marco Huttenmoser (1995) compared 5-year-old children living in neighborhoods where 5-year-olds were still allowed to play outdoors unsupervised with those living in neighborhoods where most children that age were not allowed such freedom, largely because of traffic. I will refer to the two groups as the “free” and the “fettered” groups, respectively.
Huttenmoser found that the parents of the fettered group were much more likely than those of the free group to take their children on trips to parks, so they could play there under parental supervision, but this did not undo the deficits caused by loss of neighborhood freedom. The free children spent, overall, more than twice as much time outdoors, were much more active while outdoors, had more than twice as many friends, and had better motor skills and social skills than the fettered children.
Huttenmoser’s further observations led him to conclude that trips to parks failed to compensate for lost neighborhood freedom because (a) parents did not have patience or time to stay long at the park, so play was constricted in time; (b) parental monitoring reduced children’s freedom to play in vigorous and challenging ways; (c) there were usually no consistent play groups at parks, so opportunities for social play among friends were much reduced; and (d) the parks afforded far fewer ways of playing than the neighborhoods, because more microhabitats were available in the neighborhoods and the kids could bring out equipment from their home.
The only kind of play that was more common in parks than neighborhoods was play on playground equipment. In contrast, running around, being noisy, riding bikes or trikes, roller skating, building huts, playing with toys, chalk play, team games, ball games, and self-created games of all types were much more frequent in neighborhoods than in the parks.
In parks, children’s vigorous activity is inhibited by adults and promoted by the presence of other active children.
Other research, conducted entirely within parks, reveals that children who are allowed to play there with other children, without an adult present, play in more varied and vigorous ways than do children of the same age who are being watched by a parent or other supervising adult. One such study was conducted by Myron Floyd and his colleagues (2011) in 20 randomly selected parks in Durham, NC. The researchers toured the parks at various times and recorded the activity level (vigorous, moderate, or sedentary), sex, and estimated age of the children they observed.
They also recorded temperature, the presence or absence of a parent or other adult supervisor, the presence or absence of other active children, and various other attributes of the setting. They found that the single most significant factor in suppressing vigorous activity was the presence of a parent or other adult supervisor, and the most significant factor in increasing such activity was the presence of other active children. The former reduced vigorous activity by about 50% and the latter increased such activity by about 370%.