Bring back free play!

kids playing

When I was a kid, my mother ordered me to: “Go outside and play!” if she felt like I was spending too much time in the house.

Once out the door, I was completely on my own. But this was never a problem.

During my tween years, I’d usually go tree climbing in our backyard with my pal, Janet, in warm weather. Winter days found us gleefully sledding down the steep hill in the park near our home.

When we were still in grade school, Janet and I invented elaborate games.

“Restaurant,” which was played with other neighborhood girls, involved scrounging up Monopoly money, a tea set, a cigar box (the cash register) and tidbits of food from our kitchen. We’d set up shop in our backyard, and take turns being waitress, customer and cashier. Our little “enterprise” kept us busy for hours.

Doing a bit of exploring, we “restaurant girls” also discovered the hollyhocks that grew alongside our house could be turned upside down to form colorful hoop-skirted dolls — and voila! — another game, “Scarlett O’Hara,” was born!

But alas, the kind of carefree fun my friends and I enjoyed throughout our youth seems to be fading away today.

Thanks to computers, children don’t get outside nearly as much as we did. Studies indicate 10-year-olds spend 7 1/2 hours in front of an electronic screen daily — and only 7 minutes on free play outdoors. Also, many schools have shortened recess to only 15 minutes.

And when today’s kids — of all ages — do get out on the playground, they’re more likely to spend a great deal of time participating in competitive organized sports, not the kind of free-form play we enjoyed.

Indeed, I was horrified to discover even my 6-year-old kindergartner granddaughter was deeply involved in soccer.

It also struck me that being indoors as much as they are is robbing children of the joy and solitude that comes from exploring the natural world, and uncovering its surprises (for example, a hollyhock can be more than a flower). They’re also missing out on the health benefits of exercise and fresh air, and also of sunshine, which promotes better distance vision in children.

Author Richard Louv raises the troubling proposition that society is inadvertently teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Unstructured outdoor play is vitally important to a child’s cognitive development. With no fixed rules to follow, children are free to invent their own games and rules of play (as we did in “restaurant” and “Scarlett O’Hara”).

In so doing, they’re learning teamwork and how to solve problems on their own.

But help is on the way. Such is the importance of free-play outdoors that the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested doctors begin writing “prescriptions” for play during early childhood checkups.

So grandparents, heed the call. See to it your grandchildren “go outside and play!”

Today, it’s doctor’s orders!

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to [email protected].