Why Johnny Can’t Run

Hi Folks! This is my piece that ran in last week’s Wall Street Journal. Have a good week (and some “vigorous activity”). – L.

The Importance of Child’s Play

by Lenore Skenazy

A new study of how preschoolers spend their days may make you want to run around screaming, which is apparently more than the tykes themselves get to do. After interviewing child-care providers from 34 very different Cincinnati-area centers—urban to suburban, Head Start to high income—researchers found that kids spend an average of only 2% to 3% of their day in “vigorous activities.”

Can you imagine that? Children spending 97% of their day not running around? It’s like a desk job, except with cookie time. Excuse me—apple time. When you consider that three-quarters of American kids aged 3 to 5 are in some kind of preschool program and a lot of them come home only to eat, sleep and go back again, this is beyond sad—it’s bad. Bad for their bodies, their brains, their blubber. Baddest of all are the reasons behind this institutionalized atrophy: The quest for ever more safety and education.

“Injury and school readiness concerns may inhibit children’s physical activity in child care,” writes pediatrician Kristen A. Copeland, lead author on the study, which will appear in next month’s Pediatrics but is already available on the journal’s website. Let’s take a look at both these concerns, the twin fears haunting modern-day childhood.

Fear of injury: The centers, the parents and the state regulators are all so worried about injuries that they end up steering kids away from play. They do this in part by only approving playground equipment that is so safe it is completely boring to the kids. As one child-care provider told the investigators, “We used to have this climber where they could climb really high and it was really challenging. Now we have this climber that looks cute, much cuter than the old one, but it’s not as high and . . . scary.”

“Scary” equals “fun” for kids. (It equals potential lawsuit to everyone else.) Faced with this pitiful excuse for a plaything, the kids started doing things like walking up the slide. But of course, that is verboten, too, because a kid could get injured! As several child-care providers told the authors, “the [safety] guidelines had become so strict that they might actually be limiting, rather than promoting, children’s physical activity.”

Uh, “might”?

Fear #2: Falling behind. The trembling triumvirate of child-care providers, parents and regulators also worries that kids must perform at a certain level when they reach school, so play time is sacrificed for academics. Some parents specifically request that their kids not participate in outdoor activities but “read a book instead”—an attitude that spans the economic spectrum.

The funny thing is, if you are really concerned about children’s health and school-readiness, there is a very simple way to increase both. It’s called playing.

Kids learn through play. When kids play, they’re not wasting their time. They’re learning everything from motor skills to social skills and numbers. Think of all the counting that comes with hopscotch, or with making two even teams. Those activities are a lot more fun than flash cards, but they teach the same thing: math. Kids playing outside also learn things like distance, motion, the changing of the seasons—things we take for granted because we got time outside. But many of today’s kids spend all their daylight hours in child care.

Then there are the social skills. The planning (“I’ll throw the ball to you, you throw it to Jayden”) and the compromise (Jayden always wants to go first), and the ability to pay attention. These are key lessons for anyone about to go onto another 12 years of education, not to mention another 50 years of meetings after that.

And on the physical side of things, kids outside literally learn how to move. Joe Frost, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas and author of 18 books on child’s play, has been watching for decades as dwindling time outside and increasingly insipid equipment got to the point where many 21st-century kids “are unsafe on any environment, because they have not developed the strength, the flexibility, the motor skills that come with being a well-rounded child.” They don’t even know how to fall safely, which makes them more likely to hurt themselves. So much for making kids safer by limiting their playground time.

As for the biggest health risk of all: 19% of kids are showing up at kindergarten already obese. They’ve started out on a life of couch potato-dom. Some don’t even know how to skip. “We’re seeing what we used to call ‘adult’ diabetes in children as young as 3, 4, 5,” says Dr. Copeland.

In striving to make our kids super safe and super smart we have turned them into bored blobs. Fortunately, the remedy is as simple as it is joyful: Just see the playground the way kids do. Not as an academic wasteland. Not as a lawsuit waiting to happen. Just the very best place to spend a whole lot of time.

Guest Post: Toothpicks Too Terrifying for Tots?

Hi Readers! Here’s a lovely little essay from Bree Ervin, author of the blog Think Banned Thoughts (which, apparently, she does).  — L.

Making a Point about Toothpicks by Bree Ervin

My husband and I are very picky about the preschools we chose for our children.

The preschool our daughter attends has a merry-go-round which they had to fight the state to keep, a ridiculously tall slide, and a science room with real animal skeletons, bird’s nests, owl pellets and some safe chemicals like baking soda and vinegar for the kids to do science “spearmints” with.

We knew when we enrolled her that she could come home with skinned knees, bruises and epic tales of adventure and learning!

But then, something happened. They got soft. They got scared. They stopped letting the kids go out in bad weather and made them have quiet time inside instead. They made them wash their hands so many times a day that my daughter’s hands started to crack. And I have yet to hear about them conducting a single experiment in the science room.

I was coping with all of this and writing it off as “the sad, new, child-proofed America” when the latest assault on my child’s development came home with her.

They made sculptures at school. The materials they were given were marshmallows and… Q-tips.

Seriously.

Not toothpicks, like back in the day. Nope, Q-tips. Because we wouldn’t want anyone to poke their finger or get a splinter, right!?!

I can only imagine the frustration of trying to stab a marshmallow with a Q-tip and run it through. At least they didn’t do away with the potentially teeth-rotting marshmallows as building materials! I’m glad there is at least one truly dangerous item left in the school. But ridding the school of toothpicks is ridiculous. Our kids need to be learning how to navigate a world that is filled with sharp edges, pokey things, splinters, objects that will trip them up, make them fall, skin their knees and break the occasional bone.

Life is not all padded edges and air-bags. Life is tough, and if we keep taking away things like toothpicks, our kids are going to become soft mushy little teens who become soft mushy little adults who wither at the slightest hint of danger or discomfort.

If toothpicks are so dangerous, how are we ever going to convince my daughter to pick up a scalpel and become a surgeon?

PIN Numbers for Tiny Pre-School?

Hi Readers! This woman needs our help devising good arguments to bring to her pre-k’s PTA. Over to you! — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids:  I’m a regular reader of your blog and love to hear your input and that of your readers on Free-Range issues.

Well, my Free-Range issue came up while I was at preschool orientation for parents the other day. The orientation leader announced that all the fund-raising money this year will be used to buy a security system. I first thought I’d misunderstood. I wondered why a small co-op preschool in a church in a quiet neighborhood would need a security system. So I asked about it and the leader said every family will have a PIN number to punch in to open the one entrance door, and that this is the norm at preschools.

I was sort of stunned into silence at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more it annoyed me. First, in the two years I’ve been a parent there, I’ve never heard of a “security breach” or any kind of threat, or even a minor incident like a confused church visitor wandering around the preschool. In fact, I’ve never even seen a parishioner or church employee in the preschool part of the building.

Second, the kids are all in classes with a teacher and two adult helpers and they don’t go anywhere alone, even the bathroom or the drinking fountain. (The kids are ages 2, 3 and 4.)

Ultimately, I think there will be more problems with people forgetting PIN numbers, or holding the door for other parents, which I’m sure will be against the rules. Plus, once this security system goes in, it just seems like it will feed the feeling that there is something to fear and that this is actually a good use of our donations and fund-raising dollars.

I am curious about your general opinion on this and also to hear from you or others in the know if this is the norm at preschools now. — A.

I don’t know if this is the norm now — I hope it isn’t, but I did just hear of another instance of this in a college town pre-K.  I totally agree it is a waste of money that could be spent on so many other things — books, blocks, art supplies. And if a school is already so well-funded that it lacks for nothing except excessive security measures, maybe (in the spirit of a church-run institution) the money should be diverted to a  school that lacks the stuff yours has.

This is like putting a five point harness on a swing: A new, unnecessary security precaution that could catch on, if and when it starts to seem just “better safe than sorry.” Even though it’s actually insane. — Lenore

Why Is This Thing in Every Preschool?

Hi Readers — This guest post really got to me. Maybe because I’m an American Studies major from way back, I love thinking about what our modern day artifacts say about our culture and psyche. Today’s author, Mary O’Connell, is the director of LifeWays, an early childhood center in Milwaukee, and she noticed a new item that has become a must-have in preschools and wondered: Why this? Why now?

Before I present her essay, let me add that she and Cynthia Aldinger wrote a new book, Home Away From Home: LifeWays Care of Children and Families, all about bringing a little relaxation, nature and normalcy into day care (or at least, that’s how I read it). To order the book or find out more about LifeWays, which offers training and support for childcare providers in the form of newsletters, consulting, workshops and child development trainings, please visit www.lifewaysnorthamerica.org.  And now — on to the essay!

A GRAIN OF TRUTH by Mary O’Connell

I have recently been scratching my head over what has become a compulsory item in the modern preschool classroom: the Sand Table, an indoor table filled with sand that children can pour, dump and run their trucks through.  It seems that what began as a novel concept some 20 years ago has become a necessity in a quality preschool program.  When early childhood colleagues from conventional childcare settings come to visit LifeWays, the early childhood program in which I work, they ask, “Where’s your sand table?” as if the absence of one is a red flag that we’re not providing our young apprentices with all of the vital experiences they need.

Now, as a caregiver of small children, I love sand play. But as a caretaker of the space the children inhabit, I’m not sure who thought it was a great idea to provide it indoors.  After all, how many homes do you know that have a sandbox in the living room?

Here’s the question that seems reasonable to ask: Can’t children play with their sand outside, the way they’ve done for generations, along with the sticks, mud, puddles, ice, and other great tactile experiences that Mother Nature provides for them?  I’ve come to the conclusion that a sand table, however incongruent with a clean and tidy living space, has become a requirement in the early childhood classroom because it’s the only experience many children have with the natural world. Sadly, most children do not experience daily outdoor play in nature.

If it’s drizzling, chilly, or anything less “desirable” than 75 degrees-and-sunny, most preschool programs keep children indoors, opting for the sand table and the other modern miracle of childcare, the “Gross Motor Room” — a cavernous space with padded walls, riding toys and an overwhelming din, as children expend their energy in a frenetic McDonald’s playland fashion.

When I was young and my friends and I began running around with this level of energy, my parents promptly sent us outdoors to play, where our shouts, cries and adventures were met with wide open spaces, and where our play often became more purposeful and less frenzied.  The natural environment invited us to do more than run around like chickens with our heads cut off. We made mud pies and potions, created games, poked around in the creek with sticks, climbed trees and took physical risks that taught us a lot about our own strengths and limitations.

How unfortunate that we have so removed children from their roots they are being raised under “house arrest.”  How sad that we feel we need to provide every possible experience in a manufactured, synthetic way because we’re too afraid, too controlling, or just too lazy to bring them out into nature.

I am so grateful for LifeWays, a group of childcare centers and homes across the country where children play in nature on a daily basis for long periods of time because it’s considered as vital to their development as a healthy diet and enriching learning activities.  We go out even when it’s raining or snowing or hot or cold or anything else less that “perfect.”  The benefits are immediately visible, as the children at our centers are often more coordinated, independent, verbal and imaginative — and less hyperactive — than their Sand Table/Gross Motor Room counterparts.

My dream is that we’ll come to a place in parenting and early childhood education where we’ll all realize the virtual world we’ve created indoors is a poor substitute for the natural world right outside our homes and classrooms.  In my dream world, early childhood colleagues and prospective clients will enter a preschool classroom and inquire, “Why aren’t the children playing outdoors?” — M.O.

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