Children who Play Outdoors are More Confident

Article first published as Children who Play Outdoors are More Confident on Technorati.

A few days after we moved into our new house, our doorbell rang. Obviously I was expecting a new neighbor. What I wasn’t expecting was a five-year old all alone, asking if our daughter could come out to play. I was very shocked that a parent would allow their child to run around the neighborhood alone at 7:00 at night. What kind of parent does that? Don’t they know the rate of kidnappings in this country? Not to mention the risk of getting hit by a car. Since that day, I haven’t lost the memory of that little girl all alone on our front porch, and I’ve been very vigilant about always being outside with the kids and never leaving them alone for even a second. That’s just smart parenting, right?

Maybe not. An article was recently published in USA Today that is a stark contrast to my idea of good parenting. This article discusses an idea that is truly revolutionary to me. You should let your kids play outside. Unsupervised. Often.

According to this article, allowing the kids to play outside is one of the best ways to ensure that a child grows up with high self-esteem and the ability to solve problems. Of course I want my kids to grow up healthy and happy, but by closely supervising them, I may not be giving them the tools they need in life to learn how to be healthy and happy.

In the past, when I did let the kids play outside, I tried to keep out a sharp eye for any behavior that needed to be fixed. If I saw my daughter hit someone, I intervened and explained that there is no hitting. I expected other parents in the neighborhood to do the same. I also tried to keep them from eating dirt and bugs and I tried to keep them out of the mud. All this time I was convinced I was doing the right things, so I was shocked to read this article and learn that I may be depriving my children of some of the basic foundation they need to grow up confident and happy.

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I have definitely seen it firsthand: when children play outside, there is no doubt they get time to interact with other kids in a totally unstructured and unsupervised way. Proponents of this free outdoor play argue that children learn to stick up for themselves. They learn to think creatively to come up with games to play and they learn to be assertive. According to this article, kids today who don’t have the chance to play outside have a tendency to be more depressed and ridden with anxiety. I don’t want that for my kids! Yet creative outdoor play has always taken a back-seat in my mind to safety, mostly because I didn’t understand the full benefits of free outdoor play. Now I’m already thinking of buying a DIY wooden playhouse for my kids to enjoy together with their friends.

An article was also released on this topic in the Journal of Play that closely mirrors the USA Today article. Lenore Skenazy wrote the book, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, and she was interviewed with a colleague named Hara Marano about the results of the research they have done over the years on the decline of free play in the United States.

“Kids need to play outdoors where they have space to explore and run around. Also, playing in the dirt seems to strengthen the immune system…without free outdoor play, kids lack the ability to gather and play spontaneously, and that in turn causes a serious lack of social skills. Gathering and playing freely with others lets kids practice many aspects of democracy and when free play is denied, so are these opportunities.”

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Again, this is a very new idea to me. As a Mom, I take responsibility for my kids. I have always felt that I should be teaching them right from wrong. How will my kids learn not to hit if I don’t tell them? I am ashamed to say that it never occurred to me to just let the kids learn the lesson the hard way. If my daughter hits someone and they hit her back, will she hit again? Possibly not.

However, I have a very hard time with this, because I don’t want anyone to hit her. I don’t want to watch my son ram his toy car into our neighbor’s bike. It goes against every Mommy instinct I have to watch my child struggle with getting their bike off the curb and not run out and help. If someone pushes her at school, I want to be able to step in and demand that someone make the child stop pushing. However, Ms. Skenazy would probably tell me that if I don’t let my kids work it out on their own, they will be prime suspects for bullies in the years to come. In her interview, she tackles the subject of bullies:

“By playing regularly with other kids – playing freely- kids gain social skills that become a natural deterrent to bullying. They learn how to handle disruptions. They learn how to negotiate disputes….And they learn how to be assertive, which is the single best defense against bullying.”
By giving the kids the opportunity to play outside I am giving them the gift of independence and confidence. The problem with all this is that I also looked up the statistics on kidnapping. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, every day over a thousand kids are reported missing in this country. How can I possibly even consider not supervising the kids while they play outside?

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For me, I think I will have to come up with a happy medium. I will have to find a way that I can watch from a distance and make sure there are no strange trucks lurking around the corner. Ms. Skenazy also gives some tips on ways to create a safe environment for unsupervised outdoor play that I intend to follow.

One thing I am certain of is that I will not judge parents who do allow their kids to wander around unsupervised. After all, the kids are really learning the great life lessons of independence, assertiveness, and how to eat bugs without getting sick.

Katie Mullen is the busy Mom to two toddlers, ages 3 and 1. She works full-time doing sales to support her husband through medical school and beyond. Katie’s husband is a surgeon in training, which means he is often gone and works grueling hours, leaving Katie to be a single Mom for much of the week. Despite this, Katie is a big believer in always looking for the positive in life and writes about how she does this in her blog, Mommy with Selective Memory Katie is a former athlete and is still active in running and training. Her husband is an orthopedic surgery resident and has a special interest in triathalons and is even doing clinical research on barefoot running. The happy but very busy family resides in the Mid-west where they enjoy being outdoors.

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