Why Are We So Fixated on Keeping Kids Indoors?

CC BY 2.0. supportPDX

This frustrated mother is unable to find a daycare that can guarantee daily outdoor playtime.

When seeking childcare for my youngest son, I had one requirement that was non-negotiable (aside from the obvious expectation that he be safe and respected). I wanted to ensure that he'd get outdoor play time every single day. It didn't have to be for long – an hour in the morning and afternoon would suffice – but I wanted that playtime to be guaranteed.

Never in a million years did I dream that it would be so hard to get. The excuses were abundant and bewildering to me.

"It's too cold." OK, I understand that we live in a very cold, snowy climate, but how else do we train our offspring to inhabit this climate if we're constantly keeping them indoors? There's an easy solution to this and it's called good clothing. 'Too cold' is not an excuse in other countries and, last I heard, children weren't freezing to death in shocking numbers in Scandinavia.

I've come to terms with the fact that the ministry overseeing childcare in the province of Ontario mandates that children cannot go outside when the temperature is lower than -12C or above 30C. Special weather alerts for smog, wind chill, humidity, freezing rain, heavy blizzard, etc. are also reasonable grounds for cancelling outdoor play. But the "too cold" justification is used constantly, even when the temperature isn't near -12C.

"It's too icy/wet outside." There is a lot of concern expressed about clothing getting wet or dirty – this despite the fact that parents already provide a change of clothes in case of accidents. As for slipping, have you seen kids playing on ice? They love it! We're a nation obsessed with hockey, putting our kids in skates almost for the time they start walking. Since when has ice been a reason to stay inside?

"The other kids just stand and cry. They don't know what to do." And so the others are expected to commiserate indoors? I fail to follow the logic. If an experience is uncomfortable and foreign, increasing exposure and showing by example how to enjoy it is the best way to conquer that.

"We can't take them for walks because they might run into the street." But how else does a kid learn if s/he is never allowed to practice their street smarts? You wouldn't stop feeding a kid for fear they might choke!

"There's not enough time in the day." A Montessori teacher actually told me that they had so much academic material to cover that she couldn't guarantee outdoor playtime each day – as if academics for 3-year-olds was more important than playing in the fresh air! I walked out of that interview stunned and disappointed.

What I have come to realize is that this isn't about the kids so much as it is about the adults. I don't think the adults want to spend time outside monitoring the kids, so the kids suffer as a result. It's a tragic self-perpetuating cycle, in which adults who have been raised primarily indoors fail to understand the benefits and pleasures that come from prolonged outdoor play, and therefore are incapable of passing that on to the next generation, putting them at a great disadvantage – and, I'd argue, violating their basic rights.

Please forgive the simile, but children are a bit like dogs – they need to be walked daily, or 'aired out,' as I think of it. A large, energetic dog that is cooped up constantly would be grounds for a call to the SPCA, and yet when children are contained for days on end, it's seen as acceptable. All joking aside, this is a very serious issue.

wallowing in snow

© K Martinko – This is what my son does as soon as he gets out of daycare, wallows joyfully in the snow like a little puppy.

A shocking statistic from 2016 found that most U.S. children spend less time outside than prison inmates, who are guaranteed two hours a day. I wrote at the time,

When asked by the filmmaker how they would respond if their yard time were reduced to just one hour a day, the inmates are horrified at the suggestion. “I think that’s going to build more anger. That would be torture.” One guard said it would be “potentially disastrous.”

And people wonder why so many kids have behavioral issues?

Part of me understands why the adults aren't enthusiastic to go outside. I, too, hate standing around playgrounds, but that's a design flaw. 'Safe' playgrounds are as boring as watching paint dry; but get kids engaged in some kind of activity, like building a fire, climbing trees, rolling down hills, or exploring a new wilderness area, and suddenly outdoor time becomes thrilling. There is no crying to go back inside.

What needs to change most of all, though, is the unhealthy attitude, this fuelling of fear of the outdoors. It will have disastrous consequences for our young ones, making them vulnerable, fragile, and unappreciative of the tremendous gifts the natural world has to offer.

Alas, my search for satisfactory childcare continues...