Is Outdoor Play a Child's Want or Right?

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Public Domain. Unsplash / Markus Spiske

A debate between a child and teacher reveals all that's wrong with our education system today.

My son came home from school yesterday, puzzling over a conversation he'd had in his social studies class. The students had been discussing the differences between children's needs, wants, and rights, and there had been a hot debate over the topic of outdoor play.

The teacher slotted it under 'wants', arguing that it's not necessary for survival, but my son disagreed. He said he muttered, "Only if you want to die young," loud enough for her to hear. This received an admonishment from me, but it also triggered the animated class discussion. At the end of it, though, most of the kids sided with the teacher and outdoor play remained on the 'wants' list.

"Is it really a want?" he asked me later. All of a sudden he was doubting the message I'd been giving him his entire life, that daily outdoor playtime should never be compromised. It made me sad to see him in such confusion. I explained that my view of this topic differs from that of many others, that I often feel alone in emphasizing outdoor free play with the same level of dedication that I do feeding my children healthy food and putting them to bed early.

I also explained that play – if not specifically outdoor – is indeed a legal right. It's written up in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 31, from which an excerpt reads:

"Every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts."

What I really wanted to say, but didn't because he's still young, is that this is precisely what's wrong with our education system – when teachers view physical activity and outdoor play as superfluous and external to the more important task of classroom instruction. This is a terrible oversight that is harmful both to kids' health and to their ability to retain learning.

Countless studies have shown that movement and play boost children's physical and mental health. Debbie Rhea, associate dean at Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Texas Christian University, wrote in the Washington Post about the problems that prolonged sitting create:

"When any human sits for longer than about 20 minutes, the physiology of the brain and body changes, robbing the brain of needed oxygen and glucose, or brain fuel. The brain essentially just falls asleep when we sit for too long. Movement and activity stimulate the neurons that fire in the brain. When we sit, those neurons aren’t firing."

Pediatrician Vanessa Durand explained in the Atlantic how movement "allows children to connect concepts to action and to learn through trial and error." When movement is restricted, the "experiential learning process" is impeded.

That's just the boost to learning. Then there's all the health evidence. Outdoor play is a known preventative for allergies and asthma, which affects 40 percent of American kids. There's evidence that Mycobacterium vaccae, a microbe found in soil, has the ability to "trigger our serotonin production, effectively making us happier and more relaxed" (source). Outdoor play helps kids to develop their gross motor skills and improves the sensory issues that are appearing in more and more kids these days. As author Angela Hanscom wrote,

"What we have found is that the more children are removed from free play and opportunities to develop their gross and fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, proprioceptive and vestibular systems, the more prone they are to sensory and behavior issues in the classroom. If they are constantly bothered by background noises, can’t sit still in their chair, and can’t retain what the teacher is teaching, how can we expect them to learn higher academic concepts?"

New research from Scottish and Australian researchers has found that fidgeting children burn far more calories than sedentary ones and could substantially reduce the risk of premature death. The authors concluded, "Fidgeting or standing breaks during long periods of sitting in the classroom, or at home, far from being an annoying habit, could be precisely what we need."

Obviously outdoor playtime is even better than fidgeting – and far less annoying to a teacher who's trying to keep everyone's attention. I can't help but wonder why this is even up for debate; surely by now we understand that children feel and do better when allowed to act on their natural instincts to run, jump, and shout. That educators (and many parents) continue to smother those instincts and deny children their right to burn off energy periodically throughout the day is appalling.