Let the children play outside


Contributing Columnist

Thumbs. They race across joysticks and pale glass surfaces, clicking and pulling so quickly you need a stop-time camera to see what they’ve done. They send messages of love and forgiveness, kick footballs, pilot spacecrafts across millions of light years and explode the immense teethed jaws of flesh-eating aliens who will destroy Earth and every living thing on it.
And that’s the only part of the kid that’s moving.
Adults of all forms and persuasions come to me, grandparents, aunts, cousins, mothers-in-law, all with the same complaint—the children are inside all day. Why aren’t they outside? Why aren’t they playing in the sun? They’re sitting in chairs glued down like a mollusk, and they angrily declare, “Their parents should get up off their duff” and go outside to watch them, but they’re “too damn lazy to move.”
I tell them the economic crisis makes this vastly more complicated, but children and their play is a major public health issue that will affect their health and ability to learn most of their lives. Here are some reasons I hear against, and reasons for, letting your children play outside:

Reasons against
1. Predators. They’re out there, parents tell me. They’re right. Predators are out there, in schools and supermarkets, churches and playgrounds, and children have to be taught to deal with them everywhere and anytime.
2. Bullies. Ditto for predators—they appear anywhere children appear, so children must be taught to deal with them, and actually deal with them, so that they can develop an independent, self-reliant personality and grow up.
3. They’ll get hurt. True, they can get hurt outside, but it’s a lot better to help the growing process by using their bodies, so they can grow the strong muscles and bones that they will need throughout life.
4. West Nile virus. There are innumerable bugs outside that can kill, but there are enough bugs on your hand to kill most of humanity if immune systems don’t work—and playing outside can help develop and mature your immune system in ways that will help you and the rest of the society for decades (see below).
5. Our community is not built for children’s play. And the tenements of your grandparents were? Gated communities may sometimes be a bad idea, but children can and do learn to play almost anywhere.

Reasons to play outside
1. Learning to play. A great joy of life is the creativity of play, of making up roles, stories, games, of learning to create on your own and with others—and imaginations open up when you get outside. Play can also teach mental flow and sustained attention, required for sustained achievement.
2. Sunlight. Light is a drug that resets immunity, biological clocks, improves mood and provides vitamin D. Yes, it can cause skin cancer, but that’s why hats, sunscreen, and long sleeves and pants were made.
3. Improving immunity. Farm children get far less asthma. Playing in the dirt teaches the immune system. Handling those bugs in childhood is critical to avoidance of many autoimmune diseases, as well as perhaps neurological conditions like MS. Your body learns by doing and through experience, just as it does for intellectual activities.
4. Preventing obesity. Humans are built to move. We’re walking machines. Hunter-gatherer societies walk 12 to 14 miles a day. Walking can help prevent most of the main disease scourges of industrial mankind, and moving after meals may be even more effective in weight control.
5. Getting into nature. Even short periods in the natural world improve mood, and natural settings have historically provided our ideals of beauty and paradise. If we want to preserve our planet rather than cook it, children need to get outside and see how things live and grow.
6. Making friends. You can play video games together, but it’s far better to play with other kids, learning to care about others and cooperate—a large part of what it means to be human.
7. Different senses. You smell, hear and taste inside, but you’ll sense so much more outside, teaching your nervous system and expanding your imagination.
8. Sports. You can make a living as a virtual gamer in Korea, but most of us won’t learn baseball, football, soccer, tennis, kickball and other sports unless we get outside. We need to use our bodies the way they’re built, to move, jump and play as we learn new skills.
There are dozens of other reasons for children to play outside, and perhaps you’ll write in some. We humans are social animals; built to move; built to live and love nature; to grow and mature by doing. So let the children play outside, let their brains and bodies grow, and let them learn the pleasure of some of the greatest joys of life—together with other children.


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