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Barefoot and carefree- the lost art of unstructured outdoor play and why it needs to make a comeback

By Brandy Browne

Think back to your childhood…what do you remember? Can you feel the mud squishing between your toes on days at the lake with your family? Can you feel the humidity of those southern nights you spent running around in the dark with your friends, where your greatest light source was the fireflies buzzing around you? Do you remember running barefoot in the grass? Long hours spent playing imaginary play games with your friends? Hot days at the ballfield? Many of our childhood memories center around time spent with family and being outdoors, and rightfully so. Hanscom, occupational therapist, (2016) notes, “Movement through active free play- particularly in the outdoors- is absolutely the most beneficial gift we as parents, teachers, and caregivers can bestow on our children to ensure healthy bodies, creative minds, academic success, emotional stability, and strong social skills” (pgs 1-2). Our parents had it figured out. So, what happened?

Somehow, despite our best intentions to prepare our children for the world they will enter into upon adulthood, we have gone awry. Over the last five decades, core strength and the stamina required for active play have steadily declined. Other problems have presented themselves as well. Dr. Faria, chiropractor, describes the increase in the number of pediatric clients she sees for neck and back pain. “Nerves that are impinged or restricted by tightness in the upper neck can affect everything. Restrictions in the upper neck can affect the eyes, sinuses, and nasal palate- some children may even complain of headaches. Children may have trouble with their pincer gripping from restrictions in their lower neck. Restrictions, regardless of the region, can interrupt the adequate neural input to and from the brain” (Hanscom, 2016, p 16). Even more concerning, a 2010 study in Sweden found that the rate of fracture incidents had increased by thirteen percent between 1998-2007. This is likely occurring because of a decrease in the strength of the muscles required to protect our bones from such incidents, as well as vitamin and mineral deficiencies (Hanscom, 2016, p 18). 

So, how much play do our kids really need? The answer might surprise you. Even infants need opportunities for time in nature throughout the day. Toddlers and preschoolers need a minimum of five to eight hours of active outdoor play per day. School aged children still need four to five hours of active outdoor play per day, and adolescents still require three to four hours of active outdoor play every day. Why outdoors, you might ask? The outdoors provides many benefits for children. Outdoor play provides children with a tactile sensory experience, offers them reprieve from the pressures of today’s world, and is very calming. Hanscom (2016) affirms, stating, “The sensations of getting dirty and messy in mud offer children an invaluable rich and tactile experience. The tactile system is flexible, and through exposure to various tactile experiences, children increase their tolerance to different touch sensations” (p 103). It also improves our immune system. This supports recent reports of the Hygiene Hypothesis the US Food and Drug Administration is reporting on. Hygiene hypothesis is the theory that overuse of cleaning products, hand sanitizer, showering daily, and sterilizing absolutely everything is actually hurting our immune response system, rather than bolstering it. 

There are also advantages to allowing children to be barefoot outdoors. It strengthens the arches of your feet. Allowing your child to begin learning to walk barefoot and waiting to introduce shoes lowers the likelihood of your child presenting flat feet and requiring physical therapy to correct it. Being barefoot aids in the sensory experience of being outside. It also assists children in developing normal gait patterns, balance, and the tolerance of touch in the feet sensory wise. 

So, how do we go about creating meaningful outdoor active play experiences for our children? This can be accomplished in a plethora of ways. Some suggestions include free active barefoot play (no agenda necessary or even encouraged), seasonal activities, such as berry picking or fruit picking, maintaining a family fruit, vegetable, or flower garden, observing wildlife,interacting with animals (pets are very therapeutic for children), playing in the dark (yes, they might fall…it’s going to be okay). Encourage the climbing of trees and other surfaces. Even cooking outside as often as possible can provide a very sensory experience for children. Just think of the mouth watering smell of burgers on the grill. Most of all, this means creating intentional space in your schedule for these types of opportunities. Your children will be happier and healthier for it!

References

Hanscom, A. (2016). Balanced and barefoot. New Harbinger Publications. 

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