'Balanced and Barefoot' Urges Parents to Give Kids Unrestricted Outdoor Playtime

Angela Hanscom's 2016 book is more relevant than ever in a post-COVID world.

child hangs from a tree

Getty Images / Sally Anscombe

If you are worried about the effects of the pandemic on your young child's mental and physical health, there is one thing you should do. Focus on giving that child unrestricted playtime, preferably outdoors, and soon you may see the pandemic-induced stresses melt away.

You'll likely see other improvements, too, that go beyond the past year's challenges. Children who play freely outdoors on a daily basis for prolonged periods of time have better gross and fine motor skills, core strength, stability and flexibility, endurance, vision, and attention spans. At a time when parents, educators, and health care professionals are more concerned than ever about child wellbeing, outdoor playtime is a remarkably simple solution to a serious problem. 

This advice is the subject of Angela Hanscom's 2016 book, "Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children." Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist who has spent years observing and treating children with a broad range of sensory issues. 

While I've heard about Hanscom's research and her work as the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program, I had not read her seminal book until now. It lived up to its reputation and inspired me — already a committed outdoor play advocate — to put play even more front-and-center than it already is in my family's life. 

The book begins with an interesting list of common complaints that parents have about their children. They're frail, weak, or clumsy. They're inattentive and fidgety in class, needing to be called multiple times before responding. They have poor posture, low stamina, incessantly runny noses. They struggle to read, to curb aggression, to control emotions. They are anxious and even dislike the idea of playing.

To all of this, Hanscom announces that there is hope: "Allowing your children time and space to play outdoors on a daily basis can significantly improve and encourage healthy development." The subsequent chapters explain exactly why and how this works; and if you think it sounds too good to be true, she cites numerous scientific studies to back it up.

Balanced and Barefoot book cover

Hanscom goes on to explain how the body and senses develop, and how exposure to nature helps these. It contributes to overall sensory integration, which is when a child pulls all of the information gathered by their senses into a broader awareness of his or her surroundings. And, if well-adjusted, does not feel overwhelmed by them. 

One frequently overlooked sense is the vestibular one, also known as the balance sense. Hanscom says: "[It] provides us with awareness of where our body is in space and helps us effectively navigate and move around our environment with ease and control." Children develop this sense by doing activities that challenge gravity, such as going upside down, spinning, tumbling, and swinging. Children lose opportunities to develop this crucial sense as playgrounds remove monkey bars and merry-go-rounds and limit swing heights.

Hanscom repeatedly emphasizes the completeness of nature, meaning it offers all the different sensory experiences children require. There is no need to recreate it artificially using indoor equipment, plastic toys, sensory bins, water tables, slime, or play dough because these already exist in nature — and in the right amounts, too. Nor does nature overwhelm in the way that brightly lit, brightly colored play spaces and classrooms do. Its colors are muted, its noises gentle.

Hanscom says that organized sports do not offer children the kind of physical activity that parents might expect. In fact, children move less during organized sports than when playing informal games on their own, like pond hockey. They also fail to enter a state of deep play, which only happens when adults are absent and the children have at least 45 minutes to develop their rules. At that point, imagination takes over and children can create wonderfully complex play worlds that absorb them for hours.

muddy little girls
Getty Images / vm

But what about safety? So many parents are fearful of the world, even though crimes against children have decreased since the 1990s. After familiarizing oneself with the statistics, some good advice is to realize that raising confident children, who are comfortable navigating their neighborhoods, is an excellent frontline defense. Keep in mind that embracing a "safety first" mentality translates to "child development later," as it actively prevents kids from engaging in activities that make them more independent and capable from a younger age.

Another valuable point is children often know instinctively what their bodies need, and adults should spend far less time trying to micro-manage that. Hanscom writes,

"Children with healthy neurological systems naturally seek out the sensory input they need on their own. They determine how much, how fast, and how high works for them at any given time. They do this without even thinking about it ... When we restrict children from experiencing new sensations of their own free will, they may not develop the senses and motor skills necessary to take risks without getting hurt."

To parents who doubt they can find the recommended three hours a day to send their children outside, Hanscom advises turning off the TV and saving screen time for special occasions only. Replace it with daily outdoor play, before and after school. Empty the calendar to ensure at least one unscheduled weekend day per week. Invite friends over because kids tend to play more imaginatively with playmates. Go outside yourself to garden or read a book while young children play nearby. Set out loose parts (tires, boards, sheets, kitchen tools, containers, etc.) and let the children discover them. 

The book is a quick, easy read, but it doesn't skimp on the science. Hanscom's own expert opinion and stories, supported by a range of studies, make for a convincing read that will inspire any parent to rethink their child's daily schedule. 

The book's message is more relevant than ever as we embark on post-pandemic life, trying to shake off the isolation and sedentariness of the past year, and as health experts warn of the lasting effects of the pandemic on children in particular. In the United Kingdom, there have been calls for a summer of play instead of focusing on making up for the lost academic time. 

Hanscom herself wrote recently in the Washington Post that play deprivation can have catastrophic effects on children: "Play, especially outdoors, is exactly what children need (more than ever) in order to connect and heal through this collective trauma together." 

So read this book if you have children or work with them, and let it be your guide and inspiration this year. We'll all be better off with more outdoor play in our lives. 

View Article Sources
  1. Hanson, Angela J. Balanced and Barefoot. New Harbinger Publications, 2016.