Get those kids outside and let them play, occupational therapist urges

Kids should be spending at least three hours of outdoors a day — and preferably left to their own devices, a pediatric occupational therapist is recommending.

Angela Hanscom says children struggle to develop strength and balance

Children develop balance and strength through unstructured outdoor play, the author says. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC )

Kids should be spending at least three hours outdoors a day — and preferably left to their own devices, a pediatric occupational therapist is recommending.

It's often hard to get them outside and to resist warning them against dangers or to stay clean. But Angela Hanscom said that left with the time and the freedom, kids will naturally engage in the kind of activities their bodies need, whether that's jumping or digging or spinning or hanging upside down on the monkey bars.

Hanscom, who is from New Hampshire, is the author of Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children. She's speaking about the health benefits of outdoor play on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Haysboro Community Hall, 1204 89th Ave. S.W. in Calgary.

"My biggest suggestion is just to allow time and space every day to play outdoors," Hanscom told CBC Radio's Calgary Eyeopener.

"I do speaking engagements all over the world. I'm hearing that people spent four to six hours of outdoor play a day 30 years ago. Now it's changed to the average response is 45 minutes to an hour and a half."

Outdoor play, she urged, is essential to developing strength, an understanding of reflexes, concentration and good balance.

Over her years working with children, she said she's seen a dramatic shift in children's behaviour, which she attributes to a change in their play.

In her practice, kids in general are much weaker than they used to be and have poorer balance. Some kids are being treated clinically for not being able to stay upright in their seats and being clumsy.

Angela Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist and author, who speaks about the essential benefits of outdoor play. (CBC)

She said she's heard from teachers who are seeing more inattentive kids in school, and on the playground they struggle to control their strength, for example, while playing tag.

"Any time you change the environment that drastically, you're going to change child development," Hanscom said.

"My recommendation is at least three hours of outdoor play a day and do whatever you can to just get the kids outside."

Hanscom spoke with Calgary Eyeopener guest host Rob Brown about the issue ahead of her free public talk.

Q: Why do you think those problems are connected to a lack of outdoor play?

A: There's a lot of connections, actually. When children play outside, they have plenty of time and space to move their bodies in different directions.

Kids are sitting for an average of nine hours a day now, research is saying. So they're being driven to school, sitting for hours at school.

Then a lot of times they have homework, which when I was growing up was a worksheet, and then you were outside until the lights went off.

And now they often have hours of homework or they're being driven from one event to another, and so they're constantly in this upright position.

Inside our inner ears are little hair cells and we actually need to move in rapid directions, spin in circles. We need to go upside down and move in different ways so that fluid can move back and forth and develop our vestibular system.

That sense is our balance sense and that's a key to all the other senses. So if that's not working right and we're restricting movement over and over, it can affect everything.

Q: But can kids get that through organized sports?

A: They can get some movement experiences from soccer. Oftentimes, you're still upright. You're just running but you're not going upside down or rolling down the hill or moving in different directions.

So the best thing about outdoor play is your child's neurological system will actually seek out the sensory input it needs on its own naturally. So if a kid needs to spin in circles, they'll do that and they're trying to organize their brain.

It's when we say, "Don't spin, you're going to get dizzy, stop doing that," that we become the barrier to that organization of the senses.

And in America, what's happening is we're actually restricting even the movement that they can do on playgrounds during recess time.

So we're saying you can't go on your bellies any more on the swings. They're saying it's dangerous. You can't stand on the swings, you can't jump off them, you can't spin in circles.

Those are the actual movements we use in clinic setting to actually treat children and help with sensory integration or organizing the senses.

That foundation is needed so kids can pay attention in school.

Q: It's also the parents who aren't telling the kids, like your parents did: "All right, you're finished your homework, get outside. See you when the light comes on." So what's going on there? Is it paranoia? They don't want the kids too far out of sight?

A: I think a lot of it has to stem from fear, fear and a lot of liability issues — fear of lawsuits.

So we started restricting what kids can do on playgrounds and actually taking away certain playground equipment because of fear of lawsuits.

I think there's a lot of fear of strangers. It all stems back to fear of kids of getting hurt and stranger — that sort of thing.

But ironically, so I come from the health-care profession and we were always taught to never do harm, but we're at the point where we're causing harm.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hear more from the author on why kids need to play outside:

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.