Combating childhood obesity is not a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. And we certainly want kids happy, healthy, and in good physical shape. But come on. Look at this: indoor exercise equipment for children?! I clipped these product announcements a while back and was just waiting for the right moment to rant. Your eyes don’t deceive you: what we have here is a stationary bike for children and yes, a kid-sized treadmill. “Go Johnny, another 1/4 mile, then you can wash up for dinner.” Now call me old fashioned, but when I was a kid we ran around. A lot. Outside. We climbed trees, crawled through drainage tubes, hid in ditches, dug snow forts, rode actual bicycles, even walked and rode our bikes to school. Childhood is a time when children are naturally active, naturally curious, naturally excited to take adventures. Right? Outside too, right?
But here we are in our surreal modern world. While on one level these products are laughable but dig a little deeper and we’re seeing a sad reflection of the culture we live in where these product ideas not only weren’t laughed off the conceptual designer’s desk, but were considered doable, marketable, and sellable to thousands of families across the country because their kids — for all the many reasons that exist — are not able to run around and find their calorie-burning activity simply through play — through the spontaneous, creative, courageous acts of children during scenes of unstructured free play.
I know we share the deep belief in the power of play. That’s why we do what we do. We know that children, families, and communities benefit when children have access to safe open-ended play opportunities. We’ve read the studies, seen the films, gone to conferences all about the beauty and importance of real play. But for a while there it felt like we were the only ones watching this odd cultural shift away from natural childhood to a playless society with untold unnerving ramifications. Thankfully we are not alone anymore. Society is waking up from its hazy slumber and asking, “What the heck is wrong with us?” And then next, “What can we do about it?”
Wonderfully, the answers are simpler than we may think and fun. We’re talking about a renaissance of adventure play opportunities where children have time and space to play in ways that support healthy development, heart, mind, body, and spirit. While our ultimate dream may be to restore the freedom of play to millions of modern kids to be able to stay outside until the street lights come on or their mother calls them in for dinner, we have “bridge” opportunities right now that will point us in the right direction and allow kids to play again the way they were born to.
I am excited about the nouveau adventure playground movement because it’s a “gateway” opportunity to real children’s play. For all those parents who remember wild childhood play shenanigans like you and I do but are too afraid to let their own children run free, but want their children to run free, the new adventure playground model is here to help. Trained adult playworkers, loose play materials, and a culture of saying “yes” to children are what it’s all about. Time and space and adult sanctioning of adventurous play are the steps we can all take to support the play renaissance in our play work and hometown communities. We’ll get into letting kids play with fire and build outrageous towering forts from scrap material in later posts. But for now, it’s the knowing that the culture is shifting and the pendulum is swinging back to a more lenient realm of common sense and the common good. Good! So does that mean that in the future children won’t need kid-sized exercise equipment in their lonely rec-rooms and basements to keep them fit and healthy? Yes, yes, yes!