There are lots of reasons why you should send your kids outside to play, and here's another: You might be giving them five more years to live.
It may sound like hyperbole, but with one in three kids being overweight or obese, today's children are on track to be the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. A recent study published in Pediatrics found that surprisingly, older overweight children actually consume fewer calories than their slimmer peers. It concludes that low levels of physical activity "may contribute more to maintaining obese/overweight status through adolescence."
Clearly, establishing healthy eating habits is vital to our children's health. But kids also need to move and play. It's not just about their health as kids but throughout their adult lives. This great video from Designed to Move says it best:
Every neighborhood should have at least one good playground, and every neighborhood should have at least one good pub.
Having had the opportunity to observe both of them within our block, I find myself advocating for both playgrounds and pubs because all humans need more opportunities for play and social interaction. When we consider pubs as more than bars and parks as more than playground equipment, we appreciate their real value as what urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls “third places”—those gathering spots that are neither home nor work nor school.
To be clear, I am not talking about specialty bars that are targeted to specific audiences and propped by alcohol specials. Successful pubs and taverns are less about alcohol consumption and more about conversational word play with others. Neighborhood playgrounds, accessible by walkers, focused on individual interactions and exploration, are also different from mega parks, with multiple fields primarily for organized group activities.
We all need a place in our neighborhood where everybody knows our name.
As someone who was single well into her 30s, I spent plenty of time observing life in pubs. Now, with two children and a home office in a window-filled corner, I find my attention turning to life in the small playground behind our house.
We have a big yard, with plenty of space to run around. There is even a beloved rope swing hanging from the canopy of a live oak tree, but playing in a yard is different than playing in a park. A yard comes with boundaries that require invitations to cross. Parks, like all good third places, are accessible to all who want to use them.
It can be hard to start a conversation with someone walking by a fence, but it’s easy to strike up a conversation while swinging on a swing, or waiting for the slide. A stranger in a yard could be an intruder, but a stranger in a park could be a friend. That’s precisely why one of my sons, upon spotting a potential playmate, yells to the other, “Someone is in the park, someone is in the park!” before running out the door.
Oldenburg writes about the role of regulars play in third places, and I see it out my window. When a tether ball was added to the park, it attracted older kids, including a 12-year-old neighbor. Some days she comes by herself. Some days she brings friends and newcomers.
Before long, she became known as a regular and started to model park behavior for others. Her willingness to play with kids of all ages and her approachability has set a tone for the park that is better than any list of rules or adult monitor could establish.
In much the same way that I eventually moved on from the pub, in time this tether-ball-playing, benevolent park regular will want to move onto another third place. But when regulars have established a stable, welcoming, home-like spirit, such a void can be easily filled by others who have been mentored to continue the community.
If we want adults to “play nicely,” positively contribute to a community, and interact with a variety of people at pubs and other adult gathering spots, we need good playgrounds and other child-friendly gathering spots where kids can practice these skills.
There is something about a treehouse that appeals to children's inner adventurers but also to their desire to find somewhere cozy and secret to hide. In fact, our fascination with treehouses may be one aspect of childhood we never really outgrow.
Can anyone look at these photos and not feel overcome by an itch to take up residence in a tree somewhere? Go ahead. We dare you.
In some parts, sending your kids outside to play has become a criminal activity. And we're not being melodramatic -- we mean that literally. Over the last few months, three different mothers have been arrested for allowing their children to navigate The Great Outdoors beyond the confines of their homes.
Most recently, a Tammy Cooper in La Porte, Texas was thrown in jail for "child endangerment" after a neighbor called police to report that her children were playing outside on scooters unsupervised. That the neighbor's accusation was actually incorrect -- Tammy was keeping an eye on them from a lawn chair on the sidewalk -- is even beside the point. Tammy and her six- and nine-year-old children live on a cul-de-sac, which should be a perfectly acceptable environment for a couple hours of loosely supervised outdoor play. Though the charges against Tammy were dropped, the ordeal has cost her family over $7,000 in legal fees.
In July, Betty Abena Anane in Manchester, Connecticut was charged with "risk of injury to a minor" after police say she allowed her seven- and 11-year old children to walk a few blocks to buy pizza unsupervised. As one commenter on Free Range Kids put it, "It’s a 10 minute walk on a stunningly ordinary residential street." Here, Google maps shows the route they took:
Outraged yet? Hold on, there's more. In June, April Lawson in Johnson City, Tennessee sent her five- and eight-year-old children to play at a playground a block and a half away from her house. When she sent someone to check on them an hour later, she learned they were not at the playground and immediately called 911. It turned out the kids had left the playground and gone to play at a nearby friend's house, arriving home right before the police arrived.
So after a harmless mix-up, everything was OK, right? Not quite. April spent the night in jail and was booked with felony child abuse and neglect charges.
The basic plot of all three stories is this: Mom trusts her kids to roam around for a few blocks outside. Mom trusts her neighbors to help keep a collective eye on them. Mom gets thrown in jail. Are these the lessons about 'right' and 'wrong' we want our law enforcement officials teaching our kids?
Whether inventing a recipe, building a club house, or sewing a rag doll, kids love to make things. Not only do they get to learn for themselves what works (and what doesn't!), but they get to enjoy and show off a tangible product at the end of it.
The Maker Movement, which has been gaining ground in recent years, is as much for kids as for adults. In fact, Phillip Torrone of Make Magazine believes that "the Maker Movement belongs to the kids now." He says that for the kids he meets these days:
...the idea of making things, taking things apart and sharing has not been something new, it’s something that’s always been there for them. The average maker isn’t just a 35 year old guy, it’s becoming a 10 year old girl or boy with a 3D printer.
Get your kids started at one of the many family festivals geared toward hammer-wielding children. This Saturday, Sept 22 in Washington, DC, the National Building Museum is hosting The Big Build, where kids can build a brick wall, construct a log cabin, carve stone, compete in a nail driving contest, and play with huge foam blocks in Imagination Playground (provided by yours truly!).
See photos from previous Big Builds:
Next weekend, September 29-30, is the World Maker Faire, a "family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness" in New York City. Mini Maker Faires are happening all over the country (and globe!) -- find one near you here. The National Building Museum is also hosting a Discover Engineering Family Day in February.
It's time to break out the toolbox, open the craft drawer, rummage through the pantry, and start making!
Top photo via National Building Museum.
Would you send your child to a school that gives its students hammers instead of standardized tests? Brightworks, a K-12 school in San Francisco, takes experiential learning to a whole new level. As it proudly proclaims on its website: "Our students fly kites, experiment with wind tunnels, and build turbines."
Founded by renowned tinkerer Gever Tulley, the school abides by the philosophy that tinkering and play are at the heart of learning. Student achievement is measured not by testing, but by exploration, expression, and exposition.
See Brightworks in action:
Would you send your child here?
Over the decades, as our vehicles have changed and evolved, one still looks more or less the same: the yellow school bus.
What has changed, though, are the other modes of transportation that children are using to get to school. While 71 percent of adults walked or rode their bicycles to school as children, a mere 17 percent of their own children currently do so. Fifty-three percent are driven by a parent.
That makes us sad. A car interior is a relatively sterile and isolated environment, affording few opportunities for movement, interaction, and play. A school bus, by contrast, is far more communal, while walking and biking get kids' hearts pumping, stimulating their brains in the process.
That's why we're so excited to see these human-powered school buses, which offer the best of both worlds:
Like our classic yellow bus, this Dutch bicycle school bus has one adult 'driver,' but unlike our buses, it's powered mostly by children. With a top speed of about 10 miles per hour, it also features an electric motor for those particularly tough hills.
OK, so it's not yellow, but this bicycle built for seven allows passengers to sit in a circle as they pedal and steers like a car. In Germany, these bikes are being used as human-powered school buses, and a school district in Oregon uses them to fight childhood obesity.
A walking school bus is a group of children walking to school with one or more adults. It can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school, or as structured as a route with meeting points, a timetable, and a regularly rotating schedule of trained volunteers. School bus costume optional.
Did you walk or bike to school? How do your children get to school?
As former muppet designer Gwen Gordon puts it, toddlers, neuroscientists, and Yoruban High Priestesses are "all part of a motley chorus making a serious case for the power of play."
Of course, KaBOOM! is part of that "motley chorus," and we always like to see others taking play seriously. Like us, Gordon feels so passionately about play that she feels the need to punctuate her case with an exclamation mark. Her upcoming documentary, Seriously! The Movie, shares remarkable stories of the power of play. For instance:
A virtually indestructible ball that helps turn refugee camps into temporary playgrounds...
Leaders like Antanas Mockus, the two-term mayor of Bogota, Colombia who reduced traffic fatalities by 50% by hiring mimes...
Video-game players who solved a molecular puzzle that stumped scientists for years and could point the way to crowdsourced cures for AIDS...
Get inspired by this trailer and then join the movement of serious players by supporting the project on Kickstarter.
Gordon's Kickstarter video is equally awesome. Check it out here.
With their dreary hallways and drab facades, most schools look more like hospitals than like centers for creativity, learning, and play. How can we expect to inspire students in such uninspired surroundings?
These amazing schools break the mold. They understand that playful environments are conducive to serious learning, whether in the classroom, hallway, or schoolyard. Let's hope more schools follow their lead!
As elementary school students in Chicago head back to school, they will have to adjust to a school day that is one hour and 15 minutes longer than it was last year. With a potential strike on the horizon, it's clear that many teachers aren't happy about the change, but will it benefit the students?
Here's our gut reaction: More school?! No way! Kids these days already spend far too much time in scheduled activities, and the last thing they need is another hour and 15 minutes of sitting.
But on closer examination, a longer school day just might be a good thing. According to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a shorter school day creates "false choices," forcing "teachers and principals and parents and students... to pick between social studies versus science; math versus music; reading versus recess."
And of course, when such choices have to be made, outdoor play falls by the wayside. But with a longer school day, some Chicago public schools are now offering recess for the first time in 30 years.
Alondra Nino, a student at Caesar Chavez Elementary School, told WBEZ radio: “For me, it’s always been a problem concentrating on work. And if it’s all work, work, work, it’s even harder. And now having an extra break, it’s actually going to be easier for me.”
In a perfect world, play would be an integral part of all curricula, no matter how short (or long) the school day. And in a perfect world, all kids would get to play outdoors after school. But in the imperfect world we live in -- which prizes the 3 R's above all else, and which offers children fewer and fewer opportunities to play in their free time -- we fully support a longer school day, as long as it means more (or any!) outdoor play.
What do you think? Would you support a longer school day if it meant more recess for your children?