I never knew I had it so good growing up. Today’s kids are seeing a dramatic spike in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, difficulties with emotional control (self-regulation), the rise in anxiety disorders, social shyness and developmental delays in age-appropriate coordination and balance. There didn’t seem to be much of that going around when I grew up. One thought is that maybe we have just become more aware of spotting these issues.
This got the attention of Angela Hanscom, a pediatric Occupational Therapist (OT) from New Hampshire. As a clinician, she noticed the increasing number of kids with developmental delays and deficits and confirmed these observations with additional research. She shares her findings and some sound reasons for the behavior changes observed as well as some solutions in her professionally acclaimed book, “Balanced and Barefoot.” In a nutshell, the fundamentals are explained in the extended title, “How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children.” Kids who play outdoors, and with limited adult oversight or structuring, develop social skills, curiosity, creativity, and self-confidence, not to mention balance and strength.
Research by Hanscom and others has given me pause to recall my past. Growing up, I spent summers climbing jungle gyms, log rolling down the hill, and hopping from one stone to the other in the nearby brook. We could be out for hours running around before coming home. Dodgeball, kickball and a variety of pickup games with basketball or softball were common. We picked sides, made up our rules and worked a way through enforcing them. Absent were the matching team T shirts, no adults to watch us or adjudicate upsets, no awards for participating.
It is commonly noted that, ‘times are different now.’ We have the tendency to closely supervise our kids for safety reasons. However, statistics demonstrate that we are actually safer now than any time in the recent past for things like childhood injuries or abductions. We have more exposure to the world’s more infrequent misfortunes through the media and, if we are interested to watch, it can absorb us. The consequence is a skewed impression of the world and a tendency to withdraw to protect ourselves and our families.
These kids, our kids, will grow up to have children of their own. What kind of world they will inherit and what kind of world they will create? In just the last two decades we’ve developed the internet, cell phones, advanced genome and neural mapping, and life-saving medicines. The speed of that development has resulted in some unforeseen side-effects though, as reflected by increasing prevalence of anxiety, ADHD, and childhood obesity. Giving our children more opportunity for outdoors free play with their peers seems to be a ‘natural’ solution, providing them with an optimal opportunity to develop healthy nervous systems and social skills.
One of the great attributes of living in the Upper Valley is the accessibility to spaces for children of all ages to explore. If not in your backyard, there are playgrounds in every town and networks of wonderful trails. This is thanks in part to the many years of dedication of local Directors of Recreation and Parks. People like Paul Coates of Lebanon, and recent retirees, Tad Nunez and Jill Kearney Niles among a number of organizations and people have worked hard to ensure this access.
The opportunity is there. Now, all we need to do is allow our kids to experience the gifts we have here at home.
Cioffredi & Associates Founder & Physical Therapist