How We Deprive Children of the Physical Activity They Need
By Peter Gray Ph.D. Freedom to Learn
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%.
In another study, conducted in parks in both Tampa and Chicago, John Spengler and his colleagues (2011) noted the activity levels of children who appeared to be age 10 or younger. They found, overall, that children who were engaged in self-organized activities (free play) were nearly three times as likely to be physically active at the time of observation as were those engaged in adult-organized activities.
Of course, today it is rare that children are allowed to go to the park just with friends, and much more common that they go with an adult. That helps explain why we see so little vigorous activity in parks these days, even among those relatively few children who are there.
Children who are driven to places are less active and less healthy than those who are allowed to go on their own.
In decades past, children most often got to places they needed or wanted to go by themselves, usually by walking or bicycling. Now they are mostly driven. Research shows that children who are allowed to walk to school and other places get more exercise, have more friends, and are physically and socially healthier than those who are not allowed such independent mobility (Brussoni et al., 2015; Lubens et al, 20ll; Mitra et al., 2014). As an example concerning physical health, Aristides Machado-Rodrigues and his colleagues (2014), in Portugal, found that 7- to 9-year-old children who regularly walked or biked to school were significantly healthier—by blood pressure and adiposity measures—than otherwise comparable children who were regularly driven to school.
Safety and “academic” concerns have turned child-care centers into centers of sedentary activity.
It is estimated that about 75% of 3- to 5-year-olds in the US are in child care with other children, mostly in nursery schools, preschools, and full day-care centers (see Copeland et al., 2012). One might assume that this would provide them with ample opportunity for vigorous play with other children. However, most often, this is not the case. Indeed, research referenced by Copeland et al. (2012) indicates that children in such centers spend on average 70% to 83% of their time being sedentary and only 2% to 3% of their time in vigorous activities, even when time spent at naps and meals is discounted.
Focus-group discussions with child care professionals reveal that opportunities for vigorous play have been greatly reduced because of concern for safety and, believe it or not, for “academic learning” in these little tykes (Copeland et al., 2012; Sandseter & Sando, 2016). Parental pressure to keep children from even minor injuries, state licensing codes that make almost every inducement for vigorous play illegal, and fears of lawsuits have resulted in uninteresting, unchallenging play opportunities, and, hence, little vigorous play. Such exciting, natural, and health-promoting activities as climbing, chasing, play fighting, and jumping in puddles are largely forbidden. At the same time, pressure from parents for academic learning and the imposition of state early-learning standards have led to increased time spent at such sedentary activities as naming colors, shapes, letters of the alphabet, and numbers, rather than playing.