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Hop, Skip And Jump: Physical Activity Molded Our Past. Can It Shape Our Future?

By Rae Pica

Once upon a time, children were almost never indoors, preferring to play outside. Nor were they ever still for long. They skipped and galloped, climbed trees, jumped rope, played hopscotch and rode their bicycles for blocks. They ran screaming through each other’s yards and even down the middle of the streets.

They played touch football, hide-and-seek and tag. They raced each other to the sliding board and swingset, chased butterflies and got filthy rolling around on the ground. It’s no wonder no one ever worried about them getting enough exercise!

Today, it’s the rare child who has similar experiences. Instead, children watch TV and DVDs and play not on jungle gyms, but on the computer. And they don’t walk—let alone run, as we did—to and from school. They either take the bus or their parents drive them. (Parents drive their kids everywhere these days.) And during the school day? Physical education and recess, which we had twice a day, are swiftly going the way of the dinosaurs.

The reasons for this drastic change in the landscape of childhood are many and varied. For one, there has been a shift in educational priorities from active learning to “accountability.” And because the prevailing belief is that the mind and body are separate entities (and that the functions of the mind are superior to those of the body), adults fail to see the educational values of play and movement. Thus, today’s children are more often than not expected to “sit still and learn.”

At the same time that educational priorities were shifting, so were parental priorities. Childhood became an exercise in achievement, which meant that children no longer had time to play. Of course, there’s also the space factor. Even if children somehow have the time and the opportunity to play outdoors, most of them don’t have the wide-open fields, empty lots and traffic-free streets that were available to their predecessors. Should children venture outdoors, there’s virtually no room to roam.

Rhonda Clements, Professor of Education at Manhattanville College and former president of the USA Affiliate of the International Play Association (, sees the following as problems:

• City planners are not required in many parts of the country to provide outdoor play areas.

• Many municipal recreation areas post “keep off the grass” signs, as if the green vegetation is only to be looked at.

• Crowded apartment dwellings force children to be fairly still, lest they break things, and building cooperative boards instill rules about where children may not play.

The results of all these changes in childhood are varied. Aside from “nature-deficit disorder” (a phrase coined by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods), there are the health issues. Outdoors, children can practice and refine their emerging motor skills, such as running and jumping. These activities strengthen bones and muscles, improve aerobic endurance and stimulate growth of the heart, lungs and other vital organs. And it is in the outdoors that children are more likely to burn calories—an excellent and easy antidote to the frightening problem of childhood obesity.

The consequences for a generation of children suffering from nature-deficit disorder and poorly developed motor skills have yet to be seen. But we do know that among the staggering consequences of overweight and obese children are shorter lifespans, heart disease risk factors evident in preschoolers—yes, preschoolers— and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the possibility that one in three American children born in the year 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes—formerly called “adultonset” diabetes because it was so rarely seen in children.

Clearly, these trends cannot continue. The future must involve returning play and physical activity to childhood. The first step toward change must be a new shift in priorities—on the home front and within communities. Parents, educators, and policy makers must realize that the mind and body are interdependent and that children need to play and move in order to function optimally—both physically and intellectually. They then will ensure that, whether at home or at school, children get a healthy, daily dose of play and physical activity—preferably outside. (Among other things, recess and physical education should be a regular part of the school day.)

Communities also must become play- and movement-friendly. That means providing places to bike and walk (shifting priorities from vehicles to people). We need safe, well-supervised parks and playgrounds. (According to the National Program for Playground Safety, public playgrounds often are sub-par in terms of design, maintenance, and supervision.)

Because parents comprise one-third of potential voters, they can and should use their considerable power to influence policy makers. Whether parents advocate for recess, physical education, safer playgrounds or pedestrian-friendly communities, politicians will have to care about what parents care about!

We may not be able to return to the “yesterday” of play and physical activity on every corner, but we can take steps today to ensure a more playful, healthy and well-rounded tomorrow for our children.