By Jerusha Gray
I am the mom of two humans aged 3 and 8. I am also a full-time employee, a full-time college student, an artist, musician, partner, and co-owner of a small business. Most days are filled to the gills. Even rest has to be scheduled. My partner and I purchased our first home together last fall. Unfortunately, our home is not located in an area where I can just send the monkeys out to play with the neighbor kids spontaneously. Outdoor play includes a trip to the parks in the area or a drive out to my parents’ place an hour away. It is hard. Sometimes it downright blows. I work a long day. I know that I have three chapters to complete before I get to crash out. There are orders to fill. Tiny human number one is working his way through common core math (a whole different rant for another day). Tiny human number two is often trying to a) ride the dog like a pony or b) wearing a cape and diving off the couch head first. Have I mentioned I am exhausted? The kids are antsy. The dog is whiny. I have to make it happen.
I jumped at the opportunity to read and review the new book by Angela J. Hanscom titled aptly: “Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children.”
Children should have the opportunity to adventure and learn outdoors. I grew up in a rural town. Everybody knew everyone. I could play anywhere as long as my mom knew which direction she needed to bellow my name when it was time to come in. My kiddos don’t have this luxury, and it weighs on me. The memories of digging in the dirt and playing in the woods are integral to the way I problem-solve and communicate with others today. I was excited to learn how to find ways to incorporate that into our own home life.
Angela Hanscom is a noted Pediatric Occupational Therapist who is an ardent advocate of outdoor play for cognitive and physical skill building and therapy. She is passionate about this topic, and it shows throughout the book. Study after study noted by the author show that playing outdoors for long stretches of time is paramount for a child’s development. Anecdotal passages showed the author’s own experience as a kid and with her own kids — all point back to free access to nature without substitute. The tone of the book felt like the author was speaking directly to parents with wooded back yards and daylight to spare. I came away from a great deal of the book feeling discouraged. I reached out to the author:
JG: Who is your target reader, and where do they live?
AH: My target readers are mainly caregivers and teachers and they live anywhere. Lack of movement and play outdoors affects most children these days, no matter where they live.
The book states over and over that adults should create opportunities for kids to be outdoors and free-range. I keep coming back to how to apply this to my own life and am unable for the most part, other than pre-planned outdoor spaces. I am one of the lucky ones. The city I live in has some fantastic parks. This is certainly not the case for many nationwide.
JG: What would you suggest for parents who live in densely populated spaces with limited access to playgrounds? Are there ways to incorporate free play outdoors in an inner city?
AH: Whether you live in urban or rural areas, take a careful look at your environment: think about your neighbors, and what access you have to natural settings. Ideally, there are extra sensory benefits to being and playing in nature that you won’t get in a city. It is well worth the time to take your children to National and State parks to play and explore with friends. However, play outdoors, no matter what the environment looks like, should not be underestimated. Children simply need a large space to move freely on a regular basis, whether that is on pavement or on the grass – both work in terms of movement.
One suggestion is to get to know your neighbors. Establish relationships with the people that live around you to keep an eye out for the children like we did in years past. Consider working with your town or city to “close down” a few streets on a regular basis to let the children play outdoors. There are ways to get kids back outdoors; we just need to join forces to reap the benefits.
This makes the assumption that parents and caregivers have the fiscal and physical resources to get their kids to National and State parks to play. It also isolates kids without free access to natural settings. She followed up with the statement that outdoor play anywhere is beneficial. It feels myopic and idealistic at best. I don’t see a community block watch as a feasible answer to inner city kids playing outside. The risk to unsupervised play in this setting is severe. The need has been substantiated. Where do we go from here?
JG: My son has some sensory processing challenges. When he was small, the playground was incredibly overwhelming and often resulted in both of us in the dirt and crying. I know now that I am most definitely not alone. What would you say to a caregiver in that moment?
AH: In that moment, when the parent and child are crying, I would tell that mom that her son is so lucky to have her as a mother. That it’s apparent that she has a big heart. I would also tell her that she is lucky to have him, and that we all have our sensory preferences and moments when we get overwhelmed. That the best thing to do is to just hold her son and let him know he is loved and that she understands.
I would then tell her that maybe he isn’t ready for the playground and that’s okay too. I’d suggest looking at simpler environments – especially natural ones that tend to calm and ground children like playing at the beach, near a lake, at a park, in the woods, on a patch of grass under the shade of some trees, in a field, or near a stream. To let him enjoy the outdoors where he feels at peace and can be successful with playing at his own pace. Eventually, as he gets older, his tolerance for new environments will expand and someday, he may just ask to go to a playground. If not, I wouldn’t want her to worry. There are much greater things out there than playgrounds.
Our bodies need to move and dance and play. Our brains need more than flashing lights and artificial noises. Being outside is not just for kids, either. I need it just as much as my kids do. It is crucial that we change the way we spend our days. Balanced and Barefoot does make a strong case for why we should unplug and make the time to play outdoors. The intention and direction of the book is poignant and executed with tremendous heart. I appreciate what the core of this book is attempting to do. I do wish there was less build up and more application for a broader, more diverse demographic. The answer to ‘where do we go from here’ is really only addressed for kids with resources that are often unavailable to some of our more vulnerable populations.
The burden of responsibility to provide open and natural areas for kids to learn and grow shouldn’t be just on families. Although it stops short of finding connections and solutions in the wider scope of the current need, this book is a good place to start. This topic warrants a larger, more in-depth, nuanced conversation on how we, on a grass roots level, can address the specific needs of our own communities. We can’t do it alone.
Where do we go from here?
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