Why Your Kids Need More Active Play: Book Review of Balanced and Barefoot

You want to see your child succeed.  You put them in school, in lessons, and in clubs.  You make them read and practice and buy them the necessary gear for all their various pursuits.  You are a supermom, managing all the scheduling and shuttling that goes along with their activities.

What if there was another way?  What if there were an easier way to help your child to grow to their full potential without all the programs and planning?  Would you give it a try?

All of today’s sports programs, music lessons, specialized schools, and clubs are fantastic.  However, somewhere in the past few decades we started sacrificing kid’s free time for this ‘better’ programmed, organized activity.  Are these programs actually helping our kids?  Are we seeing more child athletes, smarter kindergartners, highly adjusted youth?  Well, no.  We’re not.

Reports of emotional and sensory disorders in children are on the rise, as are attention disorders.  Kids are actually physically weaker than they were 25 years ago, not to mention heavier too *.

Angela J. Hanscom has an answer for us in her book, Balanced and Barefoot.  She proposes that our children’s increased levels of attention disorders, obesity, poor physical capabilities, heightened emotional sensitivity, and anxieties can all be solved with one simple lifestyle change.

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How do we help our kids?

Hanscom’s book starts by outlining the various child developmental and psychological complaints she sees in her pediatric occupational therapy practice.  The list of complaints includes such things as low stamina, poor concentration, increased classroom fidgeting, poor emotional coping, aggression, clumsiness, and increased anxiety.  Do your kids have any of these behaviors?

After thoroughly discussing how various developmental abilities are strengthened through exercise and movement, Hanscom shows how the lack of specific physical challenges could be to blame for our children’s poor behaviors and deficiencies.

Simply, our children are failing because they are not challenging their bodies enough.

According to Hanscom, children will actually partake in the necessary movements that their minds and bodies are needing at certain developmental stages.  However, this best happens in unstructured active play time.  It won’t happen while playing video games, or in ballet class, or while sitting at a desk.  And it definitely won’t happen with parents hovering over kids warning them of falling, telling them they can’t do that, and confining them to ‘safe’ play gyms.

More specifically,  we are not providing our children with enough opportunities to adequately challenge their bodies.

 

What’s wrong with ‘safe’ play gyms?

My kids love going to MacDonald’s.  They’ll admit, however, the appeal isn’t the food, it’s the play area with the big slide that gets them so excited.  While there is nothing wrong with this, Hanscom just feels that outdoor play is far superior to indoor play.  Here are a few of her reasons:

  • kids get balanced sensory stimulation from being outdoors – meaning all their senses are being stimulated and used
  •  adults interfere less when kids play outside
  • indoor play spaces are over-stimulating for kids –  loud noise levels, bright colors, and a bombardment of busy visuals
  • the natural environment provides unpredictable challenges for balance and strength – running along a dirt or rocky path is much more physically and mentally challenging than running in a gym
  • kids tend to use their imagination more when outdoors playing with natural items – as apposed to toys with specific purposes often found indoors
  • children benefit from the therapeutic effects of being in nature – nature is restorative, lowers stress levels, and can provide a sense of calm.

 

Some examples: Active Play and the Body

Balanced and Barefoot is packed full of concrete examples and illustrations, here are just a few:

Have you seen kids lean onto tables when eating and writing?  Perhaps you’ve seen kids with slouched posture, kids falling from playground equipment, kids with limited stamina?  Hanscom writes that poor core strength could be the reason kids are experiencing these problems.  Encouraging more heavy or active play will increase a child’s core strength.

Hanscom suggests that playing on the monkey bars, biking, swimming, exploring in the woods (climbing trees, moving logs, and lifting rocks), and tobogganing (pulling sleds up steep hills) are all good activities to increase core strength.

A review of the book Balanced and Barefoot.... how and why our children need more outdoor active play time.

This next example from Balanced and Barefoot was new to me and very interesting.  Spinning, jumping, and going upside down have great benefits for children’s physical development.  But the best part is that these movements are also key in healthy cognitive development too.

Movements which stimulate the inner ear, like spinning or swinging, help children develop a good sense of body awareness and balance.  So, they are less likely to walk into furniture, more likely to have better balance, and more likely to have better coordination.  The surprising positive effects of spinning and swinging are children’s increased abilities to concentrate and focus in the classroom.  Could our fear of spinning injuries and falls have led to an increase in attention deficits?

Because of the beneficial effects of spinning and swinging, Hanscom urges parents and teachers to allow children to spin on swings, encourage rolling down hills, and re-consider the merry-go-round as safe playground equipment.

 

What this Means for Parents

The bottom line is Hanscom wants parents to get their kids outside – everyday, for as long as possible.  And there is no minimum age requirement (with perhaps babies and young children benefiting the most from outdoor stimulation).  She wants schools to increase recess time and she wants families to stop over-scheduling their children and to appreciate the benefits of free active play.

The truth of the matter is our kids are missing out.  They are missing out on the hours of outdoor exploration, adventure, and active play time that kids of past generations enjoyed.  Because of this our kids are missing out on the crucial psychological and physical development outdoor time provides.

From infancy to the teenage years, children’s minds and bodies are growing.  Hanscom encourages parents to set some fears aside.  Yes, kids will fall and get cuts and bruises.  There will be grass stains and muddy socks.  However, she asserts that these minor hurts and inconveniences are well worth the risk when compared to the potential delays or shortcomings in our children’s physical and emotional development.

Hanscom’s ideas are valuable and a growing body of childcare providers and health practitioners are starting to stand behind them.  In summing up her book, Balanced and Barefoot, I have only touched on a few main points.  There is much more to read about, such as how to encourage outdoor time, the benefits of outdoor play to the immune system, the links between outside stimulation and sensory disorders, how schools can make changes, and discussions around children’s safety on playground equipment.

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* as reported by A. Hanscom in Balanced and Barefoot, 2016, pg. 14

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