As I child, I remember coming home from school, racing through my after school snack, changing out of my school uniform into casual clothes and rushing out the door again in a span of less than 15 minutes. We would play outside with other children from the colony until it grew dark or we could hear our respective moms yelling out our names, informing us that it was time to come home. And then the negotiations would begin…five minutes more.. please! All we needed was one mom to agree, then all the other moms would be besieged by their children and somehow, we would wrangle another half hour of outdoor playtime.
Today, as I raise my three boys in a metropolitan city, I can’t help but observe the contrast in their childhood and ours. When we grew up, outdoor play was inclusive and gender neutral. When we went down to play in the evenings, we learnt to play with everybody in the playground. It didn’t matter which school they went to, if they were boys or girls, the common bond that connected us was that we had come out to play. So, we learnt to put up with the whiny child or the child who always had to have his own way, or the child who never wanted to be the ‘den’ and we learnt to negotiate our way through the playing. We learnt important life skills while playing outside. We learnt that we could sit and sulk on the side, but eventually we had to get over ourselves and figure it out if we wanted to be a part of the group. Now, with our current culture of playdates and extra-curricular classes, we are unwittingly restricting our children’s social interactions and their ability to navigate them.
Learning life skills
Playdates are carefully put together only choosing the kids with whom your child likes to interact. We pride ourselves on putting together a fabulous playdate with great food and activities. We pave their path when it comes to social interactions and simultaneously, deprive them of the opportunity of developing key life skills. The ability to negotiate, assert yourself, make choices and live with the consequences of those choices. And if they aren’t at a play date, they are being shepherded from one extra-curricular class to another, leaving them with no time to go out and play.
Outdoor play builds self-confidence
But, outdoor play is important. It allows our children to explore their natural environment. It develops their self-confidence. They learn to test and push their physical boundaries and beliefs of what they can or can’t do. When children play outside, it gets messy. They come back home dirty in need of a good scrub, but they will have had lots of fun. Children need to get messy once in a while. They need to be able to fall down and pick themselves up. They need to learn that a tiny scrape here and there is just a part of life. When our children are playing outside, they have more space and opportunities for freedom of movement. Running, jumping, kicking and climbing are all crucial for our children’s physical development. Even if we send them to a structured physical class, unless they are budding athletes, they will not get the kind of physical movement or exercise that just playing a game of tag will give them.
Need access to safe spaces
Having established that outdoor play is important for our children, the truth is that it isn’t always easy. Not everybody has access to a safe, bustling colony life. A lot of parents don’t have choices when it comes to outdoor play. Most buildings in metros barely have enough space to park their cars and definitely, no space to send your child down to play. Again, safety and security issues dictate that there must be an adult present to supervise. And that’s not always feasible, so our children sit at home and play a video game or watch some tv.
Find a space for play
So, what can we do as parents? Introspect on your child’s daily routine. Think about his extra classes and playdates. Be honest about your intentions behind them. Is it to keep him occupied and entertained? Does he socially interact with different children, different age groups and a different gender? If you feel that he could do with a bit more physical, outdoor play…if you live in a colony or have a play area in your building, send him down to play. Create windows of time for him to play with the other kids in the building. Don’t fill up every minute of his day. If you don’t have a play area in the building, take your child to the neighbourhood park.
Look for like-minded parents
Coordinate with like-minded parents who believe in the benefits of unstructured outdoor play and take turns to be the adult in charge. Give the other parents an evening off. If there are four or five of you, you only need to be on duty one day of the week. Not every form of outdoor play needs a big space. Kids are equally happy and engaged playing hide-and-seek or cops-and-robbers. The lack of space can even stimulate their imagination and they will either create new games or complicated versions of old ones.
In a nutshell, prioritise outdoor play. Play is not a luxury. It is a necessity. As Gary Erikson said “Outdoor play is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children and healthy, adventurous and curious children are amongst the greatest gifts we can give our communities.”