Where Do the Children Play?

by Andy P. on April 5, 2013

Little GirlSure it’s the name of an old Cat Stevens song, but if you take a moment or two and dig into it, this question produces some very interesting food for thought. Having already taken a while to think on it myself, as far as I can tell, the shortest and best answer to this question is: Children play anywhere and everywhere they can.

Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to travel around the world and have spent a good bit of time in China. While China’s economy is booming and big cities like Shanghai feel a lot like Chicago, most of the country is poor. Really poor, and quite dirty too. The garbage floating around the streets and the general filth that coats the pavement can be a bit staggering at first. But even the dirtiest streets don’t deter children from running around or sitting down and playing a game in the dirt.

Little BoySo if children will play in the filthiest places in the world with the simplest toys made from trash and scraps, why do we see more and more children in the U.S. moving inside and away from more active free play? Do we actually need more well-designed outdoor spaces to entice children outside? In my experience, I’ve found that, left to their own devices, children will find a way to play just about anywhere with just about anything. The fact of the matter is that, for precisely this reason, children are not left to their own devices. When our children are very young, we choose appropriate places and types of play for them. And as they get older, we teach them to discriminate for themselves. The issue of children spending more sedentary time inside and much less time engaged in free, imaginative play really has nothing to do with children. Children haven’t changed; their imaginations are just as big and wild as ever. Let’s take a look at some things that have changed in recent years, how these changes may affect children’s play and how we can all help children Come Alive Outside.

– Andy Paluch

As goes the parent…

Take a look at these statistics compiled on the website outdoornation.org:

  • Fewer than ten percent of kids play in wild places; down from 50 percent a generation ago.
  • The roaming radius for kids has declined by 90 percent in one generation (thirty years).
  • Three times as many children are taken to the hospital each year after falling out of bed, as from falling out of trees.
  • A 2008 study showed that half of all kids had been stopped from climbing trees

Boy playing in treePerhaps the most telling of these statistics is the last one. In large part, the nature of childhood play has been altered because of the perceived danger of the world around us. Whether or not the world actually is a more dangerous place today than it was 50 years ago is not really the issue here. What’s important is that a lot of parents think it is and make decisions regarding their children accordingly.

Above all, parents want to keep their children safe, and ultimately parents’ perception of the world has a huge impact on what their children are allowed to do. Whether it’s roaming the neighborhood or climbing trees in the backyard, the point here is that if we want to get children back outside, engaged in free play, it’s not the children that we need to focus on but rather the parents. There is a great effort these days to educate parents about the importance of outdoor play to children’s development. There is also a rising awareness that the place that poses the greatest risk to the health, safety and psychological well-being of a child is on the living room couch, parked in front of the TV.

Family playing outsideWe have talked a lot about selling from “The Why” in recent months. For the landscape profession and other professions that impact outdoor living, “Come Alive Outside” is a very important reason why we do our work. It’s important to remember, though, that “The Why” has a very real impact on “The What.” Putting “Come Alive Outside” at the center of your sales message only works when you can show that the product or design that you’re selling actually addresses the problem in concrete ways. The issue of parents perceiving the outdoors as a dangerous place is a real and complex part of the larger problem of children leading more sedentary indoor lifestyles. Rather than just advocating lifestyle change, we can create much more change on the ground by understanding the concerns and incentives that people base their decisions on and designing around these factors.

While advocacy is important and may change people’s hearts and minds over time, I believe that there is far greater potential for change when we meet people halfway. If parents are concerned about being able to keep an eye on their children, then the best way to get children playing outside is to get the whole family outside. If mothers prefer for their children to play in the living room so that they can keep an eye on them while they’re fixing dinner, then we need more outdoor kitchens and living rooms. If parents are worried about the insecurity of letting their children roam through the neighborhood with the neighbor kids, then we need to get families living in their front yards again. For anyone in the business of designing and installing outdoor spaces, think about how your design and sales process can address the safety concerns that parents have for their children.

The Nature of Laziness

man running“Unlike any other organism in history, humans have a mind-body conflict: we have a body built for performance, but a brain that’s always looking for efficiency.”  This is a quote from Dr. Dennis M. Bramble, found in the excellent book, Born to Run. Dr. Bramble, along with Dr. Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University, has published fascinating work in recent years about how the human body was made to run long distances. This is what separates us from all other primates and different animals that are more skilled short-distance runners.  Unfortunately, even though our bodies are built to cover long distances and continue moving for long periods of time, our brains are wired to find the easiest way from point A to point B.

child running“The brain is always scheming to reduce costs, get more for less, store energy and have it ready for an emergency,” Bramble explains. “You’ve got this fancy machine, and it’s controlled by a pilot who’s thinking, ‘Okay, how can I run this baby without using any fuel?’ You and I know how good running feels because we’ve made a habit of it. But lose the habit, and the loudest voice in your ear is your ancient survival instinct urging you to relax.”

Now, back to the noble pursuit of getting people, especially children to come alive outside, we can start to see that we’re dealing with a very deep-seated contradiction in the nature of human beings. We need to be outside; we need to move though nature; we need to explore and discover things. And yet, our brains tell us that it would be better not to; our brains tell us to take the elevator rather than the stairs; to watch a basketball game on TV rather than going out to play in the driveway. Bramble and Lieberman suggest that, because the privilege of modern life allows us to get all the calories we need to survive without roaming the grasslands hunting wild game, we need all kinds of other incentives to get us up and moving. Because our brains are wired to be lazy, it takes more to form healthy active habits than just knowing that we should do it.

bathing dogOnce again, advocacy can only go so far. Tell a person to start spending more time outdoors, and you might get some results if you scare them into it with a list of contemporary health problems and obesity statistics. But there will always be another voice in our heads advocating laziness, telling us to relax and save our energy. Lasting lifestyle changes don’t come from just knowing what we should do; they come from the joy we experience when we start spending our weekends outdoors or the high we get from waking up early enough to go for a run. The only power that can overcome the lazy voice in our heads is a positive memory and the physical craving to get out there and feel it again.

If we want to get children playing and people living outdoors, talking about it helps but what really gets results is experiencing it. Companies and communities have embraced this idea through the Come Alive Outside movement, and the events they host are built around playing and having fun. Children have no shortage of energy and the beauty of play seems to be that the lazy voice in our heads hasn’t been activated yet when we are young. Children have the capacity to play for hours and not stop until their parents make them or they pass out from exhaustion. If you are in the business of helping people come alive outside, don’t underestimate people’s natural tendency towards laziness and overestimate the power of telling people what to do. Design places and experiences that get people started, that allow their bodies to remember how good it feels to be active. Experience goes a whole lot further than advocacy.

Find resources about children playing in nature on the
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