Play is a serious matter
Aug. 31, 2018
by Ivan Raconteur

The way things are going, there could come a time when people lose the ability to think for themselves.

I’ve said for years that common sense is becoming less common with every trip around the sun, but this is getting ridiculous.

Apparently, some children no longer want to spend time outdoors, and their parents either don’t require them to go out, or won’t let them go out.

As a result, doctors are now having to write prescriptions to get kids to play outdoors.

How sad is that?

For children (and adults, for that matter), the benefits of playing outdoors include increasing physical activity, connecting with nature, and getting away from screens and electronic devices, at least for a few hours.

When I was young, my friends and I didn’t see spending time outdoors as a punishment, and we sure didn’t need a doctor or our parents to tell us to do it.

We had fun outdoors.

Our parents sometimes had to drag us back indoors, but we voluntarily went out whenever we could, no matter what the season.

Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician at Unity Health Care in Washington, DC, is the founder and medical director of Park Rx America, a nonprofit that encourages doctors to prescribe parks; for some states, the website allows a doctor to search for parks near a family’s home address, or with particular available amenities, and write a specific prescription, with the name of the park, the activity, the duration, and the frequency, according to the article.

A recent New York Times story noted Zarr was inspired by hearing Richard Louv speak at an American Academy of Pediatrics meeting and then, by reading his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods.”

It’s nice that there is a resource like Park Rx America available to help pediatricians, but should it really be necessary for doctors to write prescriptions to convince kids to play outdoors?

The body of evidence supporting the benefits of being outdoors is growing.

In “Last Child in the Woods,” Louv wrote about what he called nature-deficit disorder, and cited about 60 scientific studies looking at the benefits of nature and the problems that can come from being too isolated from the natural world.

According to the Times article, Louv said there are more than 700 studies (abstracts can be found on the website of the Children and Nature Network, of which Louv is the co-founder).

Zarr said the two most common scenarios he encounters are overweight children and stressed-out, anxious, and depressed teenagers.

This is hardly surprising given the apparent number of hours each week young people spend sitting in front of a screen.

It appears that parents aren’t completely unaware of the benefits of unstructured play for children. Fear may be a factor.

“Parents are scared to death,” Louv said, whether of “stranger danger” or of physical injury. According to Louv, however, “small risks are opportunities to build more resilient kids.”

Some have suggested social media may be behind some of this, and I’m inclined to agree.

I find it difficult to believe the world is that much different today than it was 30, 40, or 50 years ago.

Of course, there have been unscrupulous characters around much longer than that. There have been freaks lurking in the shadows since the dawn of time.

What has changed is that now, every incident or suspected incident gets plastered over social media, causing widespread paranoia.

Some parents are afraid to let their kids walk to school a few blocks from home.

Others wouldn’t dream of allowing their children to leave the house on their own.

The only activities some kids are allowed to participate in are those organized and supervised by adults.

Even the playgrounds today have to be engineered to make it nearly impossible for kids to get hurt.

Kids are missing out on a lot of learning and a lot of fun.

A recent Los Angeles Times story highlighted the importance of play, referencing a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Play is not frivolous,” the report states. “It nurtures children’s ingenuity, cooperation, and problem-solving skills – all of which are critical for a 21st-century workforce. It lays the neural groundwork that helps us “pursue goals and ignore distractions.”

“Collaboration, negotiation, conflict resolution, self-advocacy, decision-making, a sense of agency, creativity, leadership, and increased physical activity are just some of the skills and benefits children gain through play,” the academy wrote.

When parents engage in play with their children, it deepens relationships and builds a bulwark against the toxic effects of all kinds of stress, including poverty, the academy says.

If parents need a doctor to write a prescription before they let kids go out and play, it may already be too late to save them.

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