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Kids, Dirt, and Free Play: The Trinity of Child Development

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Written by Ted Trainor

Categories: Play

Comments: 0

A simple mound of dirt. Chunky and crumbly, the ten-foot-high aggregate of earth cast a dreamy spell over my kids. The magical mound inspired visions: an alpine adventure, a tower to climb, and a precipice from which to jump. From the pile’s peak, my sons and daughter launched pinecones, rocks, dirt, sticks, and each other.

I watched my children dig, build, bury, and play with red Georgia clay for days! With their imaginations ignited by dirt, my children had endless activities. Underneath those earth-stained clothes, muscles were strengthening, limbs and joints adjusted dexterously to accommodate the varying slopes of the descent, and knees and quadriceps experienced that strange buckling sensation of “going down” a hill. Their minds whirled with ideas. Their voices overlapped with sharing observations, negotiating (maybe a little arguing), and laughter.

One would think that all children would know what to do with a pile of dirt, but children of this new millennium often do not get such opportunities. Unlike the prior generations of parents who were known to say, “Go play outside; I’ll call you when it is time for dinner,” parents today will hover, choreograph, and program their children’s play. Fear has become the prevailing lens through which the modern parent sees so much of the world of their children - even play time. Gone is the sagacity of great-grandparents who heard their contemporaries like Winston Churchill exhort, “We have not journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy."

Prior generations gave general boundaries; seemingly every inch within was fair game for their child’s creativity to work its magic. Yet, even as these types of parents tried their very best to preserve free play in the growing American cities and suburbs of the 20th century (The rural child’s play did not change all that much.), they fell prey to the various movements that replaced free play with curated parks and playgrounds for the sake of child safety. The “playground movement” evolved into playset and play equipment industry. Child development experts advised. Schools adapted. Recess changed. New toys were routinely added to the playgrounds. Fences were built. Elderly citizens who strolled for exercise and wiled away time chatting on community benches and watching the children play were told they were strangers or “being creepy”; school resource officers outlawed Ethel and Mabel’s weekday park side chats.

Then, as if the culture realized how unsafe outside play had become, indoor playgrounds multiplied. In the mall. At the park. On cruise ships. Video games claimed hours upon hours of children’s time as children became more engaged in virtual play spaces than real ones. Programmed play in the early 2000’s was even dwarfed by the number of hours children spent in cars.

And children have suffered. Researchers found 14% of children aged 2 to 5 were obese in 2017. Over one third of children were reportedly overweight in a 2012 study. In 2012, half of preschoolers in America were not even taken outside once per day by their parents. Sadly, researchers have also linked lack of outdoor play with the increase of anxiety and depression in children.

In addition, accumulated brain research has illustrated that these new play spaces are less safe for our children’s healthy brain development. Extended use of tablets and phones by children is causing a less attentive child, a more distracted child, and a very angry child when the devices are removed from play.

Instead, outdoor play, researchers illustrate, greatly improves sleep. Outdoor recess at schools improves classroom focus. Even social interaction among children improves when they are left to work out compromises and develop rules for their own play. Specifically, one report illustrated how much longer boys will play outside when they have others to join them.
Additionally, this report highlighted how much simple encouragement by adults of their daughters will increase the number of hours a girl will play outside. And, most surprisingly, given the decades of research and development of specialized manufactured outdoor toys, child intellectual development, spatial reasoning, and creativity increases with outdoor free play.

While I worried at the thought of my risk-taking third child riding his bike down the steepest side of the dirt mound, I rejoiced in watching him learn to shift his weight, balance, turn and bounce. Whereas I cringed as he flew over the handlebars and as his mouth inched ever closer to “eating dirt,” I exhaled a sigh of relief that he was strong enough to withstand a fall. Perhaps some lessons in elementary physics should naturally follow a day in the dirt.

“Happy hearts and happy faces, Happy play in grassy places, That was how in ancient ages, Children grew to kings and sages” (from “Good and Bad Kids” by Robert Louis Stevenson).

For inspiration on free play, parents can turn to their local parks and recreation departments, Fishwildlife.org (search for “Project Wild” by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies), and Freerangekids.com. While this author does not endorse everything on each of these websites, I think parents will be challenged, encouraged, and inspired by many of these resources.

Ted Trainor
Guest Contributor

Mr. Trainor is the Head of School at Agathos Classical School in Columbia, TN.

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