In just one generation, the average Australian childhood has shifted from a largely outdoors, active, independent, social, community-orientated play to a mostly indoors, sedentary, technologically immersed, highly structured, fearful and risk-averse play space.
The organization I work with, Nature Play Queensland, is on a mission is to increase the time that kids in Queensland (Australia) spend in unstructured play outdoors and in nature. That mission is founded on the understanding that unstructured play outdoors —nature play—is fundamental to a full and healthy childhood.
One way we hope to encourage kids to head outdoors is by first learning about how they are currently spending their time. Our recent research project, The Neighbourhood Play Project, did just that. The project explored the prevalence of local play networks of children within local neighborhoods, to ascertain their role in getting more children regularly outdoors playing, moving, and being physically active. In essence, we examined the neighborhood through the lens of modern childhood in Queensland’s urban areas. Why the emphasis on the neighborhood? The neighborhood is a critical resource in supporting children’s overall development, shaping positive identities in children, as community members, caring, empathetic, doers, active, connectors, friends, social beings, adventurers, connected to the natural world.
A 12-month exploration of the Neighbourhood Play Project unpacked what is and is not happening in neighborhoods for modern children and families. What we learned is that most children are banned from exploring their neighborhood. We learned that opportunities for physical activity, social activity, freedom, fun, friends, challenge, and mastery, within childhood, in-real-life, have been reduced, or largely dissipated. In particular, we noticed the loss of opportunities for children to do child-stuff locally—on their own terms.
Neighborhood Play Makes Children Happy
We now know that securing neighborhoods for children to connect and play will increase children’s physical and social activity and improve their trajectory and overall quality of life. Furthermore, for all who live in the local area, increasing neighborhood play will enhance social cohesion and reduce the risks associated with social isolation.
However, our explorations found that a significant number of Queensland children are completely impeded or highly challenged in their ability to connect and play with local friends. Therefore, a significant number of Queensland children’s physical and social activity is reduced, increasing their risk of being or becoming physically and/or mentally unhealthy.
Neighborhood Play Builds Independence
The current neighborhood story points towards a complete erosion of many children’s independent mobility in and around their neighborhoods. Upon reflection, for the children in this study, neighborhood play has seemingly disappeared from childhood. In other words, children don’t even want to go out into their community and have no interest in the immediate world outside their door, no desire to connect with local children for play, and no internal value for the neighborhood as a play resource.
This lack of intrinsic motivation for neighborhood play could negatively impact on children’s long-term intrinsic motivation for outdoor play and activities in general, along with their overall interest in physical activity and the world beyond their front door.
Perhaps this has come about due to modern children not having seen neighborhood play in action, with no other children out playing, children no longer have other kids to look up to and to aspire to be.
Neighborhood Play Builds Physical Literacy and Good Health
Children in this study never brought up physical activity as a motivator for neighborhood play however while playing out in the neighborhood, the children were constantly moving and engaged in highly physical forms of activity, such as running, jumping, climbing, chasing, etc. The children were predominantly at the edge of their skills and abilities or seeking out the next opportunity for this type of engagement within their physically active play. Climbing higher, riding faster, setting more challenges for themselves, pushing each other, and exploring and mastering new skills. This suggests that if children are given the space for outdoor play, and able to connect with other children, they will be significantly more physically active.
Interestingly, if local neighborhood play opportunities are not created, children will not seek them out.
Neighborhood Play Builds Good FriendsOur explorations found that parental concerns for their children’s wellbeing and health, surrounding neighborhood play, mostly related to their child’s opportunity for socio-emotional development and securing good mental health. Parents were most excited about their children having local friends for play.
Parental concerns were centered largely around their child’s loneliness and social isolation. Concern for children’s physical health was noted however the immediate lack, as expressed by parents, was more focused on children’s ability to just be happy and smiley. When probed parents attributed this happiness would come from their children’s social skill development, their child’s capacity to make and sustain friends, as well as create opportunities for their children to practice, test and master relationship skills. Parents viewed neighborhood play as a regular and accessible avenue for their child’s social skill development.
Correlating with this parental motivation was the high degree of parental concern that their children do not have neighborhoods or neighborhood friends, and therefore are lacking in opportunities to practice and master social skills.
Neighborhood Play Grows Out of Backyard Play
Parental concern for the growing trend of backyards shrinking was noted. Parents expressed concern that backyards were lacking the capacity to cater to their child’s social outdoor play (not enough space for multiple children to play in for extended periods of time) or satisfy the desired level of developmentally appropriate challenge and mastery levels of middle to older children. In this vein, the neighborhood becomes increasingly important as a resource to sustain a child’s level of challenge, social engagement, motivation and interest in outdoor play and physical activity.
Neighborhoods for Play Needs to be Prioritised
The difficulty of having ‘time’ for neighborhood play was regularly mentioned by parents who felt that there are multiple activities competing for attention in family life. Parents also mentioned that neighborhood play needed to become a priority, and a local collaboration of parents could schedule in unscheduled time for their children to connect and play.
How were we to know that in one generation this no longer be part of childhood?
Fear and Distrust Erode Neighborhoods for Play
Overall our community investigation discovered most children are banned from the neighborhood by fearful and distrusting parents who just want to keep their children safe. Parents are fearful that their child will be abducted or hurt if permitted to play out in the neighborhood. Parents perceived all people who they don’t know are potential threats to their children.
Other adults are not viewed as friends, valuable community members, supervisors of neighborhood children, or protectors of all local children.
This parental fear was noted as widely adopted across the community and the deciding factor for banning children from the neighborhood.
This parental fear is also projected onto children who don’t seem to perceive a reduction in their lives. Across this project, no child was noted as unsatisfied or protesting their parent’s decision to reduce their space for play and opportunity to connect with local friends. Nor were children noted as asking for or demanding neighborhood play. Children seemed to accept that locally they are not permitted beyond their home unless supervised by adults. Children seemingly accept this permanent grounding as their parents keeping them safe and secure.
A comment consistently repeated over the project was “you just don’t know who is out there”. Several children interviewed indicated they were fearful and distrusting of the outside world and were prepared with extreme strategies to ward off predators, ready to be implemented at any time. Children are seemingly being raised with the message that they are in constant danger all the time and that everyone they don’t know is a threat to their safety.
This suggests a prevalence of children who live with the fear of constant danger and are scared of their neighborhoods. This builds a negative narrative inside the child and acts as a strong internal barrier to neighborhood play.
This fear that is obvious in children’s minds suggests that grown-ups’ need to be careful in how children are educated about their community. Taking children out into their neighborhoods, talking with them about constructive strategies for staying safe and being mindful of dangers, but also reinforcing the realities of these anomalies occurring to ensure our children have an accurate perception of the world. Perhaps this will protect children’s developing worldview and paint a positive picture for children of the community they will want to grow with, be part of and contribute to.
This post was adapted from the original here.
Additional reading and resources
Nature Play QLD
THE ARROW HEAD GANG: And the Importance of Social Groups to the Outdoor Play Revival
LAST TREEHOUSE IN THE WOODS
RISKY PLAY: Losing a Childhood “Right” of Passage — and a Tool to Help Protect that Right
OutsidePlay.ca an online tool to help parents and caregivers gain the confidence to allow their kids to get out and play
Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play
Research: What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children? A systematic review
Nature and why it’s essential for kids’ brains
Online Tool Supports Risky Play
Risky Playgrounds Create Healthy Kids
The Anti-Helicopter Parent’s Plea: Let Kids Play!
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