In Support of Outdoor Play

By Jen Holman


Goodness, what a cold, wet winter. And loooooong. My kids have been inside so much these last few months the edges of our Legos are worn. The Museum of Discovery has practically become our weekend home,
and we’ve seen every kid movie out. At my house, we’re ready for fresh air and sunshine! It’s springtime in Arkansas, time to get up and get outside with our kids.

Of course, the Scandinavians say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes. Speaking of northern Europe, I’ve been reading a bit about the differences between the typical American and German styles of parenting. Did you know that most German kids are walking to school by themselves by second grade? Theirs is not what we would call free range parenting, it’s more like risk management training. Parents there put a high value on responsibility and self-sufficiency, and the prevailing wisdom is that overprotecting kids makes life more dangerous for them, not safer. They teach kids to mitigate risks to develop self-reliance.

Even playgrounds are designed to be challenging, with six-foot jumps into the sand and freestyle bridges. I know what you’re thinking. These people have a total disregard for child safety. Right? But the thing is, they don’t. They’re worried about accidents or abductions, too. They understand children may fall. They know they will probably fail. The difference is they don’t let that fear dictate their parenting. They teach and prepare them to
safely navigate the world alone. And it’s not just physical play. A high value is placed on discovering interests and passions as adults, on developing as human beings. As one author wrote, “Pressure is a dirty word. Playtime is key. Fresh air is everything.”

Here at home, the issue of school recess has come up a lot lately, both in conversations and the news. Many parents and experts wish our elementary-age children had more recess time. Most schools have 20 minutes from bell to bell, and by the time they’re lined up, trotted outside, and then back in, that’s not much playtime for a six and a half-hour school day. “Why is playtime important?” one might ask. “Kids are supposed to be learning, not playing.” But experts agree recess is necessary for child development. It has shown to result in better grades, memory and behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 60 minutes of “moderate to vigorous activity per day,” and suggests recess be part of that. “Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive development,” the group wrote.



When I was in elementary school—okay, in the 80s—we had three recesses. Why only one now? Well, with the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002 and the more recent Common Core State Standards, there’s been increased emphasis on standardized testing as a measurement of student achievement. States have cut recess and replaced it with more in-class instruction. A 2007 study found that 62 percent of school districts had increased time spent on English and math since 2001, and 44 percent had reduced time spent on other subjects. The study also found that 20 percent had reduced elementary recess time.

Here in Arkansas, 32 schools are participating in a pilot program as part of a 2017 law giving students at least an hour of unstructured physical activity during the school day. I’m hoping the pilot goes well, and the leaders of our
great state recognize the many mental and physical benefits of recess and play.

While I love this city very much, rearing my children in Little Rock is a vastly different experience than I had. I grew up on a working cattle ranch in southwest Arkansas, and was often left to play outside with hound dogs and dirt. My sister and I explored tadpole-filled ponds, fished alone and learned about the birds and bees from the birds and bees themselves. Hay bales and fallen trees were our playground equipment. I’m trying to find a happy medium between the childhood I had and the more sterile one my kids are exposed to now. Luckily, we live in a town with extraordinary outdoor spaces, and are only two hours away from the Buffalo River.

There are plenty of ways to explore right here at home. The boulders at Riverfront and War Memorial parks are amazing. Crawdad hunting (or wading) in the creeks at Allsopp, Meriwether and Boyle parks are fun for kids of all ages. And Two Rivers park is one of our favorite places to explore the woods (mind the seed ticks) or sit in the sun as worries and stress are sent down the river aboard a passing barge.