Why Kids Don’t Play Outside Much Anymore

Hi Readers — This is an article about a  BBC show debuting today the examines how “Stranger Danger” changed the way kids play.  Sometimes I wonder if “stranger” and “danger” didn’t rhyme, if things would be different. It’s such a catchy phrase, it almost sounds as if “stranger” and “danger” always went together.

But I digress. The point of the article is that while isolated childhood tragedies have always occurred, parents didn’t focus on them until fairly recent times when “intense media coverage of child sexual abuse, abduction and murder” became the order of the day. In other words: We got fear hammered into us.

Meantime, a new and real threat to children did emerge over the past 50 years: traffic, as more families got cars. The final straw? Architecture. Slum clearance meant that thousands of old, modest, eyes-on-the-street homes got torn down and replaced by high rises. It’s harder to keep an eye on kids when they are several stories below.

The series sounds great and even greater is the fact that this has become a big topic of discussion! Now if only England wouldn’t require background checks for the class mom bringing in cupcakes, or anyone who carpools kids to Sunday school  more than once a month, we’d be really getting somewhere! — Lenore

37 Responses

  1. Good article and so true! I wonder how our society can regain the culture of community that used to help parents out so much. I know I have much more peace of mind letting my kid out to play when I know that she knows lots of neighbors.

  2. I was just thinking about the whole overblown stranger danger thing this morning and realized that there may be another culprit besides the 24-hour news networks. Has anyone checked the Lifetime Movies or Hallmark channels recently? How many times have you flipped past, only to roll your eyes at yet another my-child-is-missing and i’ll-move-heaven-and-earth-to-get-him-back synopsis?

    Yeah…me too.

  3. How come kids don’t play outside when it is cold? In the olden days, we used to have these wonderful products called clothes that protected us from the elements. Seems that all that is available in stores now is a new version called an Escalade.

  4. Since the children don’t just play outdoors with their friends anymore, their play must be scheduled through “playdates” and “activities,” leading to increased traffic caused by shuffling the children around, making the roads more dangerous, and giving the children less time to play outside.

    and so the cycle continues….

  5. I think kids don’t play outside because parents don’t feel like they can send them out by themselves, and the parents don’t want to be out in the cold. Personally, I cannot WAIT until my kids are old enough for me to get them bundled up and send them out on their own to play, rather than me going out there with them all the time. When that happens (in a year or so) they will outside ALL the time.

  6. “Slum clearance meant that thousands of old, modest, eyes-on-the-street homes got torn down and replaced by high rises.”

    This isn’t the problem at all. Jane Jacobs, the original eyes-on-the-street urbanist, loved the tall buildings in her neighborhood because the density meant lots of people, which meant lots of eyes. And if you venture into dense urban neighborhoods you see plenty of kids out by themselves, not neglected but entertaining themselves.

    The problem is sprawl. It’s not that houses got taller, it’s that they got further apart.

  7. My toddler’s desire to play outdoors, no matter what the weather, has led me to re-examine my own motives for staying in. Does it really matter if I get a little cold or wet or dirty?
    The culture of community factor is also so critical. We are part of a supportive religious community and when we go to services, I know that if she runs away (or runs off with the bigger kids), someone will keep an eye on her. And I do the same for the other kids!

  8. I don’t think that fear of “stranger danger” is the only thing driving parents to keep their kids inside. We’ve seen so many kids in our neighborhood, starting from as young as the 1st grade, so overscheduled with tutors and art class and team sports and music lessons that they are never *home* to go play outside with the other kids.

    Once a critical mass of neighborhood kids becomes overscheduled, the poor free-ranger has no one to play with.

  9. I dunno, if it would get me out of having to make cupcakes for a class, I might be ok with background checks.

    I kid, I kid, of course!

  10. I never believed in the whole “stranger danger” thing and never really taught it to my kids. I taught them to watch out for suspicious behavior. I’ve been told I’m naive and/or plain stupid for believing that most people are kind hearted and want to help kids, not snatch them away because, obviously, all people (especially men) want to hurt kids and will if given the chance. I don’t know how they can live like that.

    Then yesterday I was reading a post on a site about how feeding babies formula leads to childhood obesity. And I’m sitting there thinking that having parents terrified of letting them play outside probably has more to do with childhood obesity then what they were fed the first 12 months of their life.

    All 4 of my kids were 100% formula fed and not a single one is overweight (not even close). They are all very healthy and fit and active (except my oldest who hates exercise…she is actually underweight, weighing just 45lbs at 9 years old).

    I actually expect my kids to put on about 5lbs during the winter when they basically hibernate because of the cold and then when summer starts they lose it all because they spend almost all of their time outside running around, riding bikes and swimming.

  11. So glad to see you link it to traffic and architecture. As a city planner, I’ve always considered it plainly obvious that these two things unduly influence our lives in negative ways. Everything is designed for the car, and safety for/from cars.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dog highrises, though. You’re right that they can be impersonal, but especially at a mid-rise scale, when designed right they can provide a critical mass of eyes on the “street”, and create close-knit communities of folks. They can also create a critical mass for local services that are family-friendly, and parks that are easy to walk to, etc. It’s more about the design of a building/neighborhood, more than a building type. you are definitely right that poorly designed ones destroy communities.

    What gets me is that, at least in the US, before the government and the development industry started meddling in things in the 50s and 60s, we didn’t really have as much of the sprawl we have today – things were smaller scale, more mixed-use, and walkable. I really think it’s susceptibility to marketing and the desire to keep up with the Joneses that have gotten us where we are today urban designwise.

  12. I think kids do still play outside. They just don’t go as far. I’ve noticed that kids (including mine) play outside along our street frequently, and in each other’s yards, and they ride their bikes on the sidewalk up and down the street, but they just don’t go PAST their own block. They don’t bike a mile to a friend’s house, the way we used to. They don’t walk two blocks and explore the creek on thier own, following it all the way to the lake, the way we used to. But they are outside. In good weather, generally, the bus lets off, the kids go inside for 30 minutes (snack and homework I pesume), and then most of them are outside until dinner time (about an hour outside). I’ve noticed it doesn’t happen in winter…mine are the only ones out once the weather turns cold, unless there is snow to play in–then more kids are out.

  13. We went to the park recently. My kids asked what we were going to do. I said “I don’t know, lets see when we get there.” There was resistance and some aggravation but we kept walking.

    Once we arrived, we started noticing stuff; there was a lot less water in the pond…and oh, look we can walk out to that island…and where are all the ducks? It turned into more than an hour of exploring and imagining.

    I notice this in other areas, once we push past the initial opposition/discomfort, their creativity kicks in and the games begin.

    @Jen Connelly- I read recently that sleep has a huge impact on weight. When the body gets the right kids of sleep it makes a big difference- and on many more levels than just their weight. Nurture Shock is the book. Interesting stuff.

  14. in some cases. many children provided personal computers, psp, and other entertainment inside their homes. that’s why lesser they play putside. it is one advantage of children away from kidnap, hit and run, and other accident may happen. but there is also disadvantage of this, the health may react to the said gadgets.

  15. my two year old and four year old play outside in our backyard by themselves almost everyday. The love it. I keep the back door open so that they can come and go as they please. We have had no problems at all. In fact quite the opposite. Last year my son, who was 3 at the time was playing outside without me, while my daughter napped. The guy who checks the water meter came to check our meter, which is in our backyard. He actually came around to the front door and knocked on the door to ask me if he could go into the backyard to check the meter, since my son was out there by himself. People are generally decent and don’t want to hurt you. Send your kids outside, it is good for them.

  16. It seems to me that whether kids play outside (and where they play, for that matter) varies greatly from community to community.

    I live in a complex of townhouse apartments in a more upscale immediate suburb of my city. Inside the complex, there are so many kids of so many different ages running around that I’m afraid one of them will get hit one day (but at the same time, I’m glad to see so many out and about).

    On the other hand, I go out of the complex to the neighboring housing developments and I see far fewer kids out, despite plenty of evidence that there are kids there. At best, I think I’ve seen maybe half a dozen kids, and that’s in one particular development. One of the other areas, I’ve yet to see any.

    At least I also get to see kids walking to/from school, though.

    And another example was in another townhouse/apartment complex that I used to live in. There were tons of kids (so many that getting stuck behind the school bus is a guaranteed 5-minute wait, at least), and they’d often be at the pool in the summertime, but there was a small playground at one end that went pretty much untouched from what I saw, and aside from the pool, most of the kids were hardly ever seen.

  17. I love my neighborhood. It’s all old military housing, and even though the bulk of it is low-income, it’s not the stereotypical drug-dealers-on-every-corner type of place. Our neighborhood is full of young, working families, and there are kids all over the streets at all times of the year. My 3 and 5 year olds go outside to play with other kids unsupervised 99% of the time. It’s through the friends that they’ve made that I’ve gotten to know my neighbors better when I might not have otherwise. The lady next door has taken my oldest to dinner with them, and I’ve taken their little boy to the park and dinner with us. How many people let their kindergartners go anywhere with a neighbor anymore?

  18. As an architectural historian, I’d have to chime in on high rises not being the issue. Firstly, high-rises are mostly-to-entirely an urban fixture, and the stranger danger phenom is all over the place, but especially prominent in middle-class neighborhoods, which are LESS likely to be high rises just by straight demographics of who lives where.

    Secondly, it is indeed sprawl that caused a lot of loss of community AND increase in traffic. When your neighborhood is isolated from services except by car, the increase in traffic is directly related to where you live. It also decreases your interaction with neighbors in several ways, especially since no one is walking there is no foot traffic to create incidental interaction, and when there’s a significant physical distance between you and most of your neighbors you are less likely to get to know them and less likely to be able to chat across porches or yards or really be able to see exactly what your neighbor’s kids are up to, and a much lower density of people on the street. In fact, because there are only a few families per block it became abnormal and thus suspicious for anyone not living in the neighborhood to be there. STRANGER DANGER! This simply doesn’t happen in urban or higher density housing areas – it’s normal for people to be around. This type of isolated suburban planning actually stifled communities rather than creating them.

    In my opinion, another unrealized culprit is air conditioning. It used to be that houses were hot in the summer, so in the evenings people congregated on porches and in shady lawns and got to know everyone else around doing the same. Now even in the nicest weather, people huddle inside with their mechanically regulated temperatures, complete with the experts warning us about the dire risk of heat stroke if we dare venture out on a warmer than usual day.

  19. Take heart, Doug D. There was a dusting of snow on our yard yesterday and my kids played soccer in the backyard for hours. I don’t know if their friends would have joined them as they were in school but I can’t get my kids indoors most of the time.

  20. On the high rise front, I don’t agree with everything the article has to say, but I think the most important bit on this aspect is “Modern high-rise estates broke up extended families”. In the UK there were a lot of families that all lived very close to each other, in the same street or two. These were knocked down in one blow and the families distributed to separate, new, high-rise buildings.

    They went from a culture where they were used to sticking their head out the door and calling their kids in, knowing that even if their kid was playing in the street over the message would get to him, to being 20 floors up and not knowing anyone.

    At the same time TV began to become commonplace in peoples homes so now there was space and the beginnings of something to do in doors.

    I think it was the sudden loss of community that the high-rise contributed to in the UK in the 60s that killed the outdoor play culture – not necessarily the buildings themselves.

  21. I, too, despise the term “Stranger Danger”. It’s everywhere, and it is genuinely harmful to our kids. My blood boils when my kids tell me the Stranger Danger Lady came to their school again. She rails about the danger of talking to strangers, doing anything at all online, etc. My kids laugh it off, but many of their classmates are terrified after these talks.

    I was proud to hear of my oldest son once telling a concerned classmate that the woman would be better off lecturing kids to stay out of all automobiles, since those are at least 40 times more dangerous than strangers.

    Anyway, can we please come up with a catchy phrase that means “Very Helpful Person You Just Haven’t Formally Met Yet”? Then can we get this phrase all over the airwaves and print media, and into the schools?

    We need to undo the nonsense and lunacy somehow.

  22. I’m a Brit living in US: In UK high rises are usually badly designed 60s monstrosities, and few people live in them by choice. The comparison in the article is between the high-density terrace housing typical of working class Britain before that time (very conducive to street life) and the bleak housing project high rises that replaced it (to an extent – Victorian terrace housing is still widespread all over Britain). High-rise housing per se is not the problem – here in US when I lived in an apartment building (OK only 4 levels high) for a few months, my daughter (aged 5 at the time) was more free-range than before or since. She had several friends she could go and visit on her own, she could go down to the playground with them etc. There were always lots of people around, mostly families with kids. Now that we live in a house on a fairly large lot, she has no friends she can visit without crossing a major road, plus the absence of people on the streets due to the low density of housing means it’s harder for her to roam freely.

    For me the main hindrances to her being free range are the physical distances between people, and roads that are designed without pedestrians in mind.

  23. Also, can’t blame a/c in UK, since nobody has it.

  24. Very interesting article. The whole “fear of leaving kids outside unsupervised” hit me the other day, when the teacher for a class I’m taking was complaining about our upcoming snow day because her kid would be home in her hair all day long. “Why don’t you just do what my mom used to do?” I said, “Send him outside and tell him not to come home until dinner?”

    I got a weird look and a very slow, measured comment. “I just don’t feel like a good mom letting him go out unsupervised.”

    Thing is, I could *see* her mind working – she was either going to say that I shouldn’t let my child play unsupervised outside (when he gets old enough) or was going to start talking about stranger danger. I changed the subject.

  25. From CNN.com
    http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/11/30/delaware.family.abductions/index.html

    “The U.S. Department of Justice reports more than 200,000 children are victims of family abductions in the United States each year. Of that figure, about 56,500 cases are reported to local law enforcement authorities and require investigation, studies show. In comparison, the U.S. Department of Justice reports an average of 115 stranger abductions a year.”

  26. Why would parents wonder when children don’t want to engage the waitress or the convenient store clerk when they have been taught from the youngest age that they should not talk to anyone they don’t know?

    Instilling critical thinking in our children could be a goal. Maybe someone can come up with a catchy phrase for critical thinkers like …”Critical Thinkers Ain’t No Stinkers!” or “I Can Critically Think and I’m no Fink!” This rhyming stuff is tougher than I thought.

  27. I saw one episode of the series. Absolutely brilliant and faschinating footage of children playing. It made me feel incredibly sad when I think about the way my own children are growing up. It’s not all rose-tinted either as it deals with the problems of poverty and bullying etc and class differences that existed even pre WWII in the amount of freedom that children were allowed.

    Some of footage of the east end of London (where I now live) shows that there was just more street life in general. In fact, the children in some of the footage are not playing unwatched, there are dozens of women and older boys standing on the periphery. However, whereas today they would be intervening in fights and directing play, they carry on gossiping ignoring the quite severe rough and tumble going on around them.

  28. My son (first grade) goes out to play by himself all the time. He’ll cross the street (not too busy, but some people use it as a cut through and drive too fast), to see if the neighbor children can come out too. But it always makes me very nervous and usually I make him promise several times that he’ll look both ways even if he’s disappointed if the others can’t come out. I think traffic is a huge deterrent for free range playing outside, especially for the smaller children. When I was young, cell phones did not exist. People driving were generally watching the road. Now, you really do have to worry that someone will be chatting or texting and won’t even see the kids who are outside. They’re too preoccupied and not paying attention.

  29. i think children would not be safe without there parent to play outside cause there might be danger like. also if u let your children play outside during winter with the snow there might be a bilzzard while your children is playing outside also if your house is far were u are playing. i think children should not be allow to play outsideduring winter anytime if yourchildren ask please say no during winter.

  30. maryam — First, please, please, please reread what you type (and perhaps use spellcheck) before hitting the “post” button. What you say can’t contribute to the conversation if no one can understand what you’re trying to say.

    That said, I want to address some of the points (I think) you were making.

    Regarding the weather and the idea that “there might be a blizzard” while your kids are out playing. If you live in an area that has snow, you’re familiar with the weather patterns that happen and teach your kids to recognize changes in weather accordingly. Also, keep an eye on the weather. If you have TV, you can flip it to the weather channel. If you don’t but have Internet, open it to weather.com. If you don’t have either, watch out your window. The weather isn’t likely to be drastically different at your house or your kids’ friends a block away and if you watch the weather, you’ll have plenty of time to call them home. Worst case scenario, they spend the afternoon at friends’ house while they wait for the weather to break. If it’s a big storm that will last longer than an hour or two, you would see it coming at the very least several hours ahead of time.

    Also, with snow, one assumes the area is cold. Again, prepare your children. They make snowsuits and sweaters and longjohns for a reason. If it’s too cold, then simply limit their time outside at once accordingly, then bring them in for a couple hours to dry and warm up, then let them go back out.

    Regarding distance, that’s why you set limits to where your kids can go, based on their age and proven responsibility level, and if they break that rule, they get punished, it’s that simple. That way, they’re never “too far away” for something to happen that you would necessarily have been able to prevent if they were closer.

  31. My back yard is linked up with 3 others. The kids run around freely. They imagine. They wrestle. They breathe fresh air. Until…one of my neighbors yelled, “Get out of the ivy! It’s not SAFE!” I thought my kids were being eaten alive by some man-eating plant but, she was worried about varmits and bees and the like. Gees! They’re fine! My kids still play in the ivy. It’s their own little jungle to explore. Her little boy stands near the edge and watches.

  32. My wife and I own and operate a large Mister Softy type ice cream truck. We have done this for years. Over the past six or seven we have noticed an alarming decrease of children playing outside to the point where there is almost a complete absense of children in most areas. This is true all summer and regardless of weather conditions. It could be 75 or 90…almost no one goes outside. In an average nieghborhood, dog walkers outnumber children playing, 10 to 1. I do not wish to believe that parents are concerned more that their pets get exercise than their children. Part of the wonder of doing what we do, was to drive down any street and see children at play. That time apparently has passed.

    As an example, today we drove our nornal route which spans six hours and takes us through many different neighborhoods, where it is likely that thousands of children reside, we saw 2 children in their front yards and six on bikes. That’s it. Years ago, we would have seen hundreds of children in these same neighborhoods and even three years ago the numbers would have been twenty times what they are today. Is it fear of strangers or are kids just eating in front of the TV or playing computer games all day long? I don’t know. I do know, I do not what to live in a world, where two nine year old boys who live next door to each other, only see each other through their computer video cameras and twitter each other instead of having fun playing football.

  33. How come kids don’t play outside when it is cold? In the olden days, we used to have these wonderful products called clothes that protected us from the elements. Seems that all that is available in stores now is a new version called an Escalade.

  34. I thought your article really ties into the whole world becoming a marketplace, and when children go outside they are not using products such as television, video games, or computers. The average parents fall for the tricks of stranger danger, it seems better to parents to see them inside on an xbox then outside where their children could be unsafe. Rules like dont cross main roads, or dont go out of our site, promote indoor activities, which tend to cost money.

    The news tells us everything bad that happens in the world, so we can take precautionary measures. When the children of one generation are cooped up, and filled with messages from the media, they are all but more likely to commit crime, which in turn, makes the world less safe. It’s not quite a dominoe effect, its rather a cycle. In the 1500s it was don’t leave the kingdom or you’ll be captured by fairies and witches. Now in the modern day, in order to keep a society uneducated on the outside world, they must take greater measures.

  35. This is very interesting article really childhood tragedies are increasing day by day like childhood child sexual abuse, abduction and murder. Now question is that
    How will kids go outside to play ?
    Are they safe while playing outside?

  36. Don’t buy this. I have a 7 year old nephew who is MORE than capable of playing outside on the weekends. I think that my parents were more than capable of encouraging that out of me in my middle school years and maybe I lost it in my 20’s but I still desire it as an adult if it sounds appealing to do activity with my first grade nephew. People are being lazy in their choices with kids. Unless you don’t have a back yard you can play outside with your kid in one. buy a ball and bat or a soccer ball or a outside chalk set. All I had was access to my parents’ driveway and I was able to teach him chalk tic tac toe, hang man, hopscotch, as well as to just draw with chalk or do chalk profiles. As well, I did coloring books with him or puzzles, (not outside stuff but inside) When we are outside as well we ride bikes together. or if a friend is outside he plays with him, but not always, but we are constantly outside if it is good weather. Sick of seeing stuff about how kids are “unable” to do this or that or act this way or that way. I am guessing those most excessively technological not slow paced ever kids would be unimpressed with (among other things I have gotten him over the years) what my nephew has gotten for toys this christmas and for his 12-22-2011 birthday: a soccer ball, arts and crafts stuff, a board game, a color by number type of deal using small stickers to challenge his motor dexterity as a 7 year old and one technology present of a i-pad book of ideas of apps since he loves using my dad’s i-pad (with his approval) I also have given him in past years card games, puzzles, books (board mostly) he is started to get into easy level chapter books (early 2nd grade level), play doh, numerous toys, and many other typical kid toys. 🙂 Any parent that encourages kids to not have a all technology/outside based etc growing up years gets props for this AUNT!!! GOOD JOB STAYING INVOLVED IN YOUR KIDS’ LIVES! It is possible!! Don’t raise a generation of kids who don’t have a clue what a board game is. That was a “family” activity for my family until I was probably out of high school so for a 6 year old to be too “old” for it is ABSURD!

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