This article is part of a bimonthly series that will address early child development.
I was imprisoned in the US a dozen times for protesting social injustice and nuclear weapons. And in every prison except one (where I was in solitary confinement), outdoor exercise was a daily feature. Mandatory, in fact.
I learned later that the United Nations has standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners and that one of them is an hour of outdoor exercise. Every single day.
It is jarring then to know, that kids these days may not be getting even one hour of outdoor exercise everyday. Are we in danger of treating our prisoners better than we treat our children?
A study in the UK revealed that prisoners get more time outdoors than 75% of British children. 20% of British kids didn’t play outside at all on an average day.
Indian children – especially urban middle and upper class children – aren’t much better off. A study published in 2017 concluded that 56% of parents in India say their children have fewer opportunities for outdoor play than they did themselves. Disabled children, due to stigma, mobility issues and family shame, suffer even more than typical kids.
Playing outdoors guarantees vigorous, aerobic activity (which is adult-jargon for running, jumping and generally being a kid). Outside, it is next to impossible for children to be still – and the younger they are, the more they need to move.
That’s why being outdoors is so good for children. Outside, they needn’t worry about breaking things, running into furniture or scuffing up the walls and noise is less of a problem with the whole sky to absorb it. Something about the wide open spaces unleashes a different kind of energy. Even sedentary children can be inspired when outside for long enough.
But pollution, safety concerns and schedules packed with tuitions and extra-curricular pursuits like screen time, music and chess classes keep children inside and under wraps for most of their waking hours. And their development is suffering.
All children – including disabled children – need to be outdoors. For children to develop well and to achieve their full potential, unstructured play and outdoors is a critical ingredient.
Start with the basics. Sunshine is where we get most of our Vitamin D. It’s vital for strong bones, natural immunity, cheerfulness and good cardio-vascular health – and that’s just for starters. Yet Indian children are often deprived of this amazing and absolutely free magic because of cultural biases and mistaken beliefs. Children are often not allowed to play in the sun for fear of heat stroke and tanning; the result is a widespread Vitamin D deficiency in one of the sunniest countries in the world.
According to the Harvard Medical School, children develop better executive function skills when they engage in regular, unstructured outdoor play. Making up their own games (once a staple of childhood), sorting out problems with other children, inventing rules and finding the materials they need from the natural world all contribute to the lifelong skills they will need as adults.
They also learn to take risks, another important part of growing up. Many parents worry excessively about their children’s safety and protect them so effectively that they end up being timid about other things too. Risks are a part of life and children need to practice navigating them. Gauging how high they can climb, jump and stretch physically is excellent preparation for learning their limits in other spheres as well. Knowing when to stop and when to push oneself in a race or a climb teaches valuable life lessons in discipline, practice and determination.
Parents may be right to worry about increasing pollution levels and stranger-danger and for many families living in crowded cities, space to play where children are not at risk of being run over by bikes, scooters and cars is extremely limited. But the most common reason for middle and upper-class children not going outside remains simply the endless lure of their devices. And their parents, truth to tell, have the same problem.
The good news is that what’s good for the children is just as good for their parents. When children are active, parents need to also be active and this helps parents to also avoid health risks that come with being sedentary as one gets older. Sedentary adults are more likely to be overweight and are also prone to hypertension, heart attacks and mental health issues – to say nothing of setting a bad example for their children.
Parents may neglect their own health but when it’s about their kids, they are more likely to act. Getting children outdoors and active often involves getting active oneself. Hiking as a family, taking up cycling in the park, going rafting or camping instead of staying in a hotel, choosing an afternoon walk over an afternoon snooze – these are all affordable options for many families. Your kids will be smarter, healthier and happier and they’ll love that extra time with every child’s favourite toy: their parents.
And best of all? You win the “Get Out of Jail Free” card. The four walls of your home – no matter how comfortable – can become a prison if you stay inside too long. Get outdoors with your children. Run. Cycle. Climb a tree. Toss a Frisbee. Get tired. Then come home.
Jo McGowan Chopra is American by birth and a writer by profession. A mother of three, she has lived in India for the past 34 years with her Indian husband. She is co-founder and director of the Latika Roy Foundation, a voluntary organisation for children with disability in Dehradun. She blogs at www.latikaroy.org/jo.