Where Will the Children Play? — By Bart Theriot

It is the middle of Summer.  No school, no sports and the sun stays up for an eternity each day.  Children have nothing but time.  Hours and hours of it. So where are they? 

What does it take to get your child outside during the Summer?  Effort.  I wish it didn’t, but it does.  Conversely, turning on the iPad or television takes no effort and this is part of the reason our children find it so difficult to maintain their interest in outdoor activities.  Creating one’s own enjoyment requires effort.

It doesn’t work anymore to just kick your children out of the house.   They won’t stay out there long without you.  Right or wrong, my parents didn’t give me a choice -and many of my friends grew up the same way.  Maybe our parents recognized the slippery slope of being your child’s playmate, but I honestly cannot ever recall my parents playing nerf battles, tag, legos or any other childhood games with us. It is a different world for parents, now.

To see how things have changed, just look at the play equipment. It tells the whole story. I’m not even talking about how it is designed. Actually, today’s play equipment is pretty well-made and there are all sorts of creative configurations out there. Although I would love to get my kids out on those magical wooden playgrounds of the 80’s. But go and sit at a local playground and take note of how many adults are actually up on the equipment with their children. I’m not talking about the little toddler just learning to walk. Parents are up there with children who can run, jump, climb and certainly play by themselves for five minutes. Not a single one of these adults is hanging, climbing or crouching uncomfortably under that jungle gym because it is fun. They do it because if they don’t, their child won’t play without them -not for very long anyway.

The child won’t play! If that doesn’t frighten you a little bit, you’re missing the point.

What about the backyard play set? In my area, parents spend thousands of dollars on multi-level wooden sets that take days to assemble with slides, rock climbing walls, ladders and ropes that look like an American Ninja Warrior obstacle course. It is not uncommon to see one in each backyard for five or six houses in a row. But if you look closely, you find not only are these sets unoccupied, some are in near pristine condition because they have almost never been used -except for that one time dad begrudgingly squeezed himself into it to rescue his petrified son from the second level.

Alright, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a fact that decreased outdoor play leads directly to discomfort with physical challenges. It leads to a whole mess of other issues as well, including the inhibited development of important neural pathways. Honestly, though we really don’t need to delve into brain functions in this post. No one would argue against it anyway. The truth is that I’ve never gotten anything but enthusiastic agreement from parents when I talk about the importance of getting children outside. We know the value. We just don’t know how to achieve it anymore.

“…more and more parents feel hopeless in the face of technology’s warm, glowing, warming glow.”

So what do you do at 10:00a.m on a sunny Saturday morning when your child says there is nothing to do? If you’re like most parents, you start to sweat a bit and immediately begin scrolling through the mental list of available options. One-by-one, you eliminate them for one reason or another until you’re left with only a few suggestions. All of them require your involvement in some way…except one. The device. With a sigh that is part relief, part wretched disappointment, you make the choice between the two and live with the consequences.

If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. It is a sad fact that we cannot talk about the decrease in outside play without mentioning technology. The two are forever and increasingly entwined. Consequently, more and more parents feel hopeless in the face of technology’s warm, glowing, warming glow.

When it comes to getting your child outside, there is no one perfect solution. however, here are a few ideas that may lead to long-term success. First, consider and burn into your brain exactly what you want your child to get out of his time outside. If it is important enough to you, it will be easier to stick with it when the going gets tough. Second, whatever you do, do it gradually, breaking it up into small steps. Third, seek partnership by giving some control over those steps. If your child is old enough to understand, be sure to share the positive effects of his efforts. Fourth, make your involvement as unnecessary as possible so you can easily leave him to his own exploration and enjoyment. And finally, should you find yourself visiting the local playground with your child, do not, under any circumstances, play on the equipment.