Alliance for Childhood released the following statement yesterday. Here they present compelling evidence and arguments in favor of recess and other unstructured free play opportunities for our children. This short piece is packed with current information and valuable resources for parents and professionals who are aiming to bring play back into the lives of our children. Thank you, Alliance for Childhood! – GBMc
Contacts: Ed Miller, Senior Researcher, 917-363-1982, firstname.lastname@example.org;
Joan Almon, Executive Director, 301-699-9058, 301-801-5293, email@example.com
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Free Play Is the Missing Link in Anti-Obesity Campaign, Says Children’s Health Group
Exercise and Nutrition Programs Alone Won’t Turn the Tide of Fatness
College Park, MD, February 5, 2010—The fight to defeat childhood obesity can’t be won unless we start focusing on children’s free play, which has dwindled just as their weight has ballooned, according to the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit partnership of health professionals and educators.
“We’re delighted that Michelle Obama has taken up this issue as her major focus as First Lady,” says Joan Almon, executive director of the Alliance. “Efforts to reverse the obesity epidemic have until now focused almost entirely on improved nutrition and physical activity—with disappointing results. The missing ingredient in this recipe is play—good old-fashioned child-initiated play, the kind that used to keep children moving and active for hours each day.”
Mrs. Obama launched her obesity campaign this week, saying, “Many parents around this country are struggling with this issue…and are looking for ways to help.” The answer, says the Alliance for Childhood, is simple: remember what your own mother told you when you were a child.
“Moms used to say, ‘Go outside and don’t come home until supper,’ ” says Almon. “Children ranged over the whole neighborhood. They played without direct adult supervision—although more mothers were at home and kept an ear open for the sounds of play. There were few fights or other problems. Somehow children managed, and they were physically active for long periods, because they never ran out of ideas for play.”
Many pediatricians agree. “Encouraging unstructured play may be an exceptional way to increase physical activity levels in children, which is one important strategy in the resolution of the obesity epidemic,” wrote Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in a clinical report for the American Academy of Pediatrics.[i] Ginsburg is a member of the Alliance for Childhood national advisory board.
“Emphasize activity, not exercise,” say childhood obesity experts at the Mayo Clinic. “Your child’s activity doesn’t have to be a structured exercise program—the object is just to get him or her moving. Free-play activities, such as playing hide-and-seek, tag, or jump-rope, can be great for burning calories and improving fitness.”[ii]
The Academy of Pediatrics calls for “unorganized outdoor free play” as an important strategy for fighting obesity in a policy statement issued in 2006 and reaffirmed this month. The Academy also downplays organized sports, especially for younger children.
“Organized sports … should have flexible rules and short instruction time, allow free time in practices, and focus on enjoyment rather than competition,” says the policy statement. “These children [6- to 9-year-olds] have a limited ability to learn team strategy.”[iii] Even with older children and teens, coaches find that devoting some of their practice time to letting youngsters organize their own games keeps their enthusiasm for the sport at a high level—and keeps them moving.
A study conducted by Dr. Lou Bowers, Professor Emeritus of Physical Education at the University of South Florida, found that “free play, unlike organized activities, gives children the health benefits [of exercise] with little to no prompting to encourage the activity. Furthermore, it is an activity that children of all ages, sizes, and abilities can benefit from equally, with no team pressures, physical preferences, or singling out, as is sometimes the case with other activities.”[iv]
And it’s not just physical health that free play enhances. Children also learn better when they are allowed to play. A new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says that “overwhelmingly, principals reported that recess has a strong positive impact on academic achievement. Students listened better and were more focused after recess. And principals widely agreed that recess positively impacts social development and well-being.”[v]
The Alliance argues that, for a variety of reasons, unprogrammed and make-believe play among children has declined, and this has contributed to obesity and other health problems. “Children used to spend hours tunneling in the snow, building forts, and racing home-made go-karts—with occasional breaks to collect their breath, come up with new play ideas, or just sit and contemplate nature,” says Almon. “Children organized their own games like sandlot baseball or pond hockey and established the rules. They negotiated new rules as the situation required. The goal was to keep everyone in the game and playing all the time, so there was much more physical activity for each child than in traditional sports leagues where much time is spent sitting out, and the rules are set by adults and are non-negotiable.”
A group of Canadian obesity researchers found that “focusing on reducing sedentary behavior and encouraging free play has been more effective than focusing on forced exercise or reducing food intake in preventing already obese children from gaining more weight.”[vi]
One obstacle to children’s free play is the absence of nearby playgrounds. A 2008 Canadian study found that “children with a park playground within one kilometer were almost five times more likely to be classified as being of a healthy weight … compared to those children without playgrounds in nearby parks.”[vii]
Still, many modern parents are simply afraid to send their children out to play. Some of these fears, say play advocates, are overblown.
“The rise in childhood obesity is paralleled by the rise in parental fears of the risks to children of being unaccompanied outdoors,” writes Alan Sutton of the Westminster Play Association in London. “I find it strange that the simple solution, to let children play outside more, is dismissed as impossible in our modern society. Stranger-danger is largely a myth promoted by the mass media, yet there are few voices raised against it…. Parents’ refusal to allow free play for their children is now becoming embedded in a system of parental peer pressure whereby parents are afraid to allow children out for fear of being labeled uncaring (or worse) by their peers.”[viii]
Joan Almon acknowledges that some neighborhoods really are too dangerous for completely unsupervised play, and that even in safe places it’s no fun to go out to play if there’s no one to play with. “Parents need to know there is some adult oversight,” she says. “In the U.K. this is provided by thousands of professional playworkers in parks and other settings. The U.S. needs the same thing.”
Many parents and community leaders are organizing for play with the help of play advocacy organizations. For example:
- Playborhood offers tips for parents on organizing free play times for children in your neighborhood (see playborhood.com);
- The International Play Association (ipausa.org) and Wild Zones (wild-zone.net) help to organize outdoor play days in parks;
- Too many schools offer little or no recess, or monitor it so tightly that children cannot run or play traditional games; Playworks (playworksusa.org) works with schools to change that;
- The Alliance for Childhood (allianceforchildhood.org) offers materials and workshops on the art of playwork, helping park, playground, after-school, and early childhood professionals understand play and how to support it without dominating it;
- A national play coalition (usplaycoalition.clemson.edu) and a local one in New York City (nycplay.org) are spreading the word about the importance of play;
- KaBOOM! (kaboom.org) has helped hundreds of communities around the country build new playgrounds and advocates for more time and access to safe play places.
[i] American Academy of Pediatricts clinical report, 2007; http://www.aap.org/pressroom/playFINAL.pdf
[iii] American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement, 2006; http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics;117/5/1834
[iv] Healthy Play Research, 2003; http://www.opraonline.org/pdf/bowersobesitystudy.pdf
[v] “The State of Play,” 2010; http://www.rwjf.org/vulnerablepopulations/product.jsp?id=55249