Kids need outdoor play

Dvora & Rafi Meitiv up a tree
A kid’s natural habitat

My previous blog post talked about the many reasons that free play is critical for healthy child development. But time free play is disappearing for most kids, especially free play outdoors.

A 2012 study of over 4 million children found that on most days, more than 40% of preschoolers didn’t even have one opportunity to play outdoors. Not a single chance to touch the grass, breathe fresh air, or bask in the sun. That’s a dramatic change from just one generation ago: in a national survey, 830 mothers were asked to compare their own childhood play with their children’s—eighty-five percent agreed that their children played outdoors less than they had at the same age. 70% of mothers said they had played outdoors daily, and 56% said they did so for 3 hours or more. Regarding their kids’ play, the percentages were 31% daily, and 22% for three hours or more.

Kids today are under house arrest

Many parents claim that “screens” lure children indoors and away from outdoor physical activities. It is true that kids are spending a lot of their time using technology: a 2012 UCLA study found that 90% of children’s leisure time is spent indoors with television, video games, and computers. However, studies in the UK found that 40% of kids would rather play outside, but their parents wouldn’t let them, citing concerns about traffic and ‘stranger danger.’ In the survey of 830 American mothers, most admitted that they restricted their children’s outdoor play, with 82% citing “safety” including fear of crime as the primary reason, in spite of the fact that all categories of violent crime are at their lowest point in forty years.

When kids are allowed outside, it’s usually to participate in a scheduled or organized activity. A survey by the U.S. National Centers for Disease Control for that in a typical week 27% of kids ages 9 to 13 play organized baseball, but only 6% played on their own. Many parents believe that participation in team sports is beneficial for kids and there is evidence to support that view. But this participation should not come at the expense of free play and when the benefits are compared, free play comes out ahead. A study published in the Creativity Research Journal found that hours spent participating in organized sports were negatively related to creativity as an adult, while time spent in unstructured sports settings were positively correlated with adult creativity.

Some parents justify channeling their children into sports rather than free play on the grounds that the children might get hurt if allowed to play without structure or guidance. The opposite is true. A study of more than 1,200 children, from 8 to 18 years old, who visited 2 Chicago hospitals, found that children were more likely to be injured if they spent twice as much time per week in organized sports as they did in free play. Why? “Unlike team sports, individual play in nature allows the child to tailor exercise to his or her own interests and abilities, often in conjunction with creative efforts,” says the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP).

Kids need outdoor play

According to the AAP, playing outdoors, in nature, “allows for the full blossoming of creativity, curiosity, and the associated developmental advances,” that kids need. “Play in nature provides children with opportunities for self-directed physical activity that can help promote physical health and reduce obesity.” Angela Hascom, pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook, says that as the amount of time kids spend outdoors decreases, sensory deficits are increasing and she’s seeing more kids with underdeveloped vestibular (balance) systems. “A child’s neurological system is naturally designed to seek out the sensory input it needs in order to develop into a strong and capable individual.”

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, speculates that the rise in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) among school children may stem in part from ‘nature deficit disorder’–the growing alienation of humans, especially children, from the natural world. While Louv stressed that the term as not meant to be scientific or diagnostic, evidence shows that time spent in nature can increase creativity, speed healing, and reduce anxiety and depression – in kids as well as adults.


What can parents do?

Let kids go outside! Let them explore the yard or a local park. Crime is lower today than it has been in forty years so there’s no reason to keep the kids in. Some of them may resist—if they’re used to being entertained, it may take them a little while to get into the groove of playing by themselves. But I guarantee, given the chance, most kids will take to free outdoor play like, well, kids – because it’s what they’re built to do.

What are your memories of playing outside as a child? Were you allowed (or expected) to entertain yourself or did you spend time in organzied activities? What do you think about the state of children’s play today? Let us know in the comments below! 

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Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam.  She loves to talk about kids, parents, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and opinionated public speaker and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.



Where have all the children gone?

Signs of a different time. 

When I was growing up, and for nearly every generation before mine, kids were expected to entertain themselves in their free time without adult supervision. The idea that two children couldn’t walk in their own neighborhood without an adult—either because they were incapable or it was unsafe—would have been laughable. Kids were kicked out of the house and told to “be home by dinner.”

But no longer.

The world is different today—it’s much, much safer than when I was a kid. So why are American parents paranoid about letting their kids out of their sight? German reporter Clemens Wergin, Washington Bureau Chief for the German newspaper Die Welt, wrote in the New York Times about the contrast between parenting in Berlin and suburban Maryland. Back home, it wasn’t unusual for his girls, ages 8 and 11, to take the metro alone, go to the playground, or walk a mile to a piano lesson without parental supervision. But when he suggested that practice to American parents, many were “horrified.” In hundreds of emails, messages, and tweets, people from France, Israel, Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand and elsewhere have shared with me stories of the freedom and responsibility given to children in their cultures.

Why not here? The American situation is even more confusing because such freedom was the norm for children and parents in this country not too long ago.

According to Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, children are less free today than any time in human history, with the exception of periods of slavery or intense child labor. But his research, as well as that of many others in his field, demonstrates that kids need time on their own, away from adults. Time to explore the world at their own pace and make sense of it in their own ways. By supervising kids at all times and controlling their activities, American parents, and society as a whole, reveal a disturbing lack of faith in children’s intelligence and competency. They also deny kids opportunities to experience classic adolescent milestones, such as learning to navigate their neighborhoods, going on sleepovers, getting paid jobs, and attending overnight camps—actives that social work professor and family therapist Dr. Michael Ungar sees as critical rites of passage that have aided the maturation process for generations.

Over the past year, I have heard stories from American adults who grew up “free-range” —what comedian Bill Maher notes was just called “parenting” back then—and have read many nostalgic accounts of childhood adventures. Author Mitch Albom put it best when he said that his parents would have been in jail if today’s over-protective standards had been applied when he was growing up.

Ironically, as children’s freedom outdoors has been severely curtailed, their privilege within the family has grown dramatically. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert notes that, with the exception of ancient royal heirs, American kids may be the most overindulged brats in history. They have little to no responsibility, and are raised with fewer limits than in the past. Chores and part-time jobs are seen as wastes of time. Set bedtimes and mealtimes are quaint relics from the past. Few restrictions are set on TV and videos games, and even parents who can ill-afford to do so spoil their kids with toys, clothing, and other purchases. Behaviors that were considered non-negotiable in the past, like civility and basic respect for adults, are seen as optional or even a hindrance to parents who aim to be their kids’ best friends.

So…in spite of the reduction in crime over the past generation, AND expert agreement on the importance of structure, limits, and accountability for children, it seems that the only real boundary many modern parents enforce is the front door.

Parenting is Risky Business

[Yesterday, I was invited to testify before the Maryland House Judiciary Committee on a bill related to Child Protective Services. The sponsor pulled the bill from consideration while I was en route – this post is adapted from the comments I prepared for that hearing].

My name is Danielle Meitiv. I am a Maryland resident and mother of two children: Rafi, 11, and, Dvora 7. From October 2014 to June 2015, my husband and I were subjected to three neglect investigations by Child Protective Services (CPS) of Montgomery County, Maryland. In the first incident, we allowed our children, then ages 10 and 6, to play at a park one block from our house without adult supervision. In the other two instances, we allowed them to play at a park one-mile from our home and walk back, again without an adult. In all three investigations, my husband and I were cleared of any wrongdoing.

“Being wrongly investigated and indicated for inadequate supervision is more harmful to families than it may seem to the general public,” says Diane Redleaf of the Family Defense Center.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes parents’ rights – shouldn’t CPS? 

Some people might think that it is better to investigate innocent families than to risk missing actual abuse or neglect. This ignores the harm that wrongful  investigations inflict on children and their families. Our children were pulled from their classrooms, interrogated and frightened by a CPS caseworker, lied to, and held against their will for hours in the back of a police car without access to food or a bathroom. We were not notified that the children had been  into custody until almost three hours after the fact, and they were not returned to us for two more hours. My son later told me that he thought he was going to an orphanage and would never see me again, and both children still want to hide when they see the police.

Children can be deeply traumatized by these forcible, unwarranted separations and their parents are left to pick up the pieces, with little or no help or apology from the authorities. Our family can certainly attest to that – we sought therapy to help our children deal with the post-traumatic stress induced by their ordeal, and it was a full month before we were all able to sleep without nightmares. Because most people assume that CPS only intervenes or removes children in cases where there is a clear threat of serious harm, “there have been few consequences for child welfare authors who indicate parents of neglect or remove a child from the home without evidence,” according to a 2015 report by the Family Defense Center.

Our children are not the only ones who have suffered. According to a report published by the federal Department of Health and Human Services in 2012, from 2008 to 2012, the number of referrals to CPS agencies nationwide increased by 8.3% to 6.3 million children, the while overall rates of actual child victimization declined by 3.3%. That means that over this period, the rate of wrongful investigation increased significantly. These wrongful investigations wasted government resources, which would have been better spent on children and families who actually needed intervention and support.

Nationwide and in the State of Maryland, a root cause of the increase in wrongful investigationsis the vague and inappropriate definition of child neglect. Maryland law 5-701 includes under the definition of neglect “the leaving of a child unattended…under circumstances that indicate… that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm.” The use of “risk” as a criterion is a serious problem because it is subjective and fails to take into account the risk management decisions that are an essential aspect of parenting. Every parenting action entails a level of risk, whether it is allowing your child to play football, ride in a car, walk home from the park unattended, or sit in front of the television all day.

This criterion also infringes on the rights of parents to make those decisions. As recently as 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court reffirmed that “it cannot now be doubted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children”. [Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000)]

The child welfare policies and practices of most states, including Maryland, directly violate these rights. In June of 2015, the Maryland Department of Health and Human Services announced a “clarification” of their guidelines, stating that an unattended child would not automatically trigger an investigation for neglect. This is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. The laws that govern child neglect in Maryland, and every state nationwide, must change to recognize the Constitutional rights of parents to raise their children, without risking government intrusion or harassment. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that fathers – and mothers – know best. State laws must recognize this as well.

Kids Need Their Freedom – Just Like in the Past!

Let Them Go!

[Sung to the tune of Frozen’s “Let It Go”]

The streets are quiet and empty, not a child to be seen.
They’re all in isolation, just staring at a screen.
Supervised activities, when they’re even allowed outside.
Shouldn’t keep them in, they need the exercise.

Don’t let them climb. Don’t let them run.
Who ever said that childhood was fun?
Protect, direct, why take the chance?

But we need a chance!

Let them go! Let them go! Don’t hold them back anymore.
Let them go! Let them go!
They’re old enough to go to the store.
Let them play. It’s just a few blocks away.
Don’t call the cops.
They won’t bring the kids home anyway.

It’s funny how our parents just let their kids play ball.
And the fears we let control us didn’t bother them at all.
It’s time to see what kids can do. Let them test their limits just like you.
Learn right from wrong; just let them be
Be free!

Let them go! Let them go! Let them play under the big blue sky.
Let them go! Let them go! It’s time to let them try.
Let them run and let them play.
Don’t call the cops…

So many games to play and adventures to be found
Kids organize themselves when you let them run around.
And one thought barrels in, like a child running fast.
Kids need their freedom, just like in the past!

Let them go! Let them go! Let them venture off of the lawn.
Let them go! Let them go! That anxious child is gone.
Take a stand. You can start today.
It’s up to us.
We know what kids need – it’s child’s play.

Vocals by Dvora, Rafi, Danielle, & Alexander Meitiv, and David, Isaac, & Randall Luttenberg

Video by Russell Max Simon

Lyrics by Danielle Meitiv


Just the Facts

Fact: According to the FBI, the United States today is as safe, or safer, than it has been in more than forty years.

blog_violent_crime_six_large_cities_2According to the New York Times:

The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years. In all regions, the country appears to be safer. The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States. Small towns, especially, are seeing far fewer murders: In cities with populations under 10,000, the number plunged by more than 25 percent last year.

Fact: Just one generation ago, when todays parents were kids, children were given much greater freedom and responsibility than they are allowed today.

Author Mitch Albom describes a childhood much like that which I, and the majority of today’s parent, enjoyed:

I walked half a mile to school as a 6-year-old, rode a subway and two buses to school when I was 11 and was told by my mother, repeatedly, “Go outside and play somewhere. Anywhere!

Fact: In most places in the world, childhood independence and freedom are still the norm.

As Clemens Wergin, Washington bureau chief for Die Welt, explains:

…Germany is generally much more accepting of letting children take some risks. To this German parent, it seems that America’s middle class has taken overprotective parenting to a new level, with the government acting as a super nanny.

So, why do American parents think that their kids are incapable of handling the same level of independence they enjoyed when they were kids?

Why do they believe that their kids are less competent than their peers in other countries and in earlier times?

And if today’s kids are in fact less competent, whose fault is that?



Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, “free-range” mom, and very passionate, opinionated person. She is currently working on a book called “Fighting For the Future: A Parent’s Rebellion.” You can find her on Twitter:  @DanielleMeitiv , Facebook: Danielle Meitiv, and YouTube: Danielle Luttenberg Meitiv. She lives with her husband and her two famous, free-range kids in Silver Spring, MD.