Play Is in Peril
Saving Unstructured Outdoor Play

By Ian Proud

Outdoor play is in peril. The sad reality is that unstructured outdoor play is not happening today the way it did decades ago. In fact, today's kids get 50 percent less unstructured outdoor playtime than kids of the 1970s, according to The Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit advocacy group. Our lives are over-scheduled, so free time, for both children and adults, is sparse. We are hyper-competitive and dictated by security concerns. Video games and electronic devices vie for children's time, and all the while, parents are dealing with the demands of balancing work and home life.

We must put unstructured outdoor play back into our daily lives or else there will be negative repercussions for future generations. To save outdoor play, we must make it meaningful and relevant to how we live today. We can do that by reinventing the outdoor experience. That includes reinventing classic playground equipment, building equipment that challenges everyone at their level and incorporating interactivity into the playground.

Individuals not closely linked to our industry may wonder why outdoor play matters. Research supports the benefits of outdoor unstructured play. In fact, the lack of outdoor play opportunities hinders childhood development. In Free to Learn, developmental psychologist Peter Gray argues that children who are free to pursue their own interests through play will not only learn all they need to know, but will do so with energy and passion.

According to Howard Chudacoff, author of Children at Play: An American History (2007), "Beginning around 1960 or a little before, adults began chipping away at outdoor unstructured play by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children's freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace 'pickup' games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents' fears led them to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised."

You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't agree keeping children safe is a top priority, but what if our societal priorities for young children—safety and school readiness—are hindering children's physical, social and psychological development?

Research published in the February 2012 issue of Pediatrics magazine identified three primary barriers to children's physical activity while at a childcare facility: injury, financial concerns and a focus on academics. This study suggests playgrounds are partially to blame for childhood obesity and children leading sedentary lives. The study found that because of stricter licensing codes, playgrounds are now less challenging and, in the eyes of children, boring. According to a CBS News article on the subject, "not only are kids less interested in the playgrounds, some parents also ask daycare staff to restrict their child's physical activity for fear of injury."

Are today's (and tomorrow's) children to be denied the experience of dangling from monkey bars, flying down slides or seeing how high they can swing? Are exhilaration and a sense of adventure on the playground no longer suitable childhood experiences? I hope not. Outdoor play is a necessity for raising happy, healthy children. Some may think play should be reserved until chores are done, homework is complete and extra-curricular activities have been accomplished, but play is not a luxury. Play is a powerful, necessary part of life. It helps children develop their entire being: physically, creatively, cognitively, socially and emotionally.

To encourage outdoor play, we must create play environments that are meaningful and relevant in today's world, not yesterday's. To entice children to engage in unstructured outdoor play, we must make the play experience relevant to how we live today, as compared to decades ago. Think back to your own childhood. If you are older than 30, chances are your parents didn't even have to tell you to go out and play or plead with you to run around outside to burn some energy. In fact, you would probably beg to remain outdoors for one last game of kick the can or four-square before bed. Back then, unstructured outdoor play was a natural part of childhood.

Times have changed. Today, we must thoughtfully and deliberately place value on time spent in unstructured outdoor play. To ensure that outdoor free play is an integral part of our lives, our industry must look at the equipment we design and make it delight and engage kids and parents alike. There are now specific product lines designed to unleash the transformational power of play. For example, there is electronic outdoor commercial play equipment that incorporates technology to get kids outside and active. The product line blends the exhilarating and heart-pumping excitement of video games with the aerobic rush of outdoor fun.

Manufacturers, academics and researchers must work together to better understand the physical, cognitive, social and emotional aspects of what happens when people play—whether they're embarking on an imaginary adventure to a far away land or playing tag. From there, we all need to use that knowledge to create experiences that embrace and encourage creativity and build strong communities. Play is powerful, and the playground is a powerful place, the intersection of reality and fantasy.

It's unfortunate that unstructured outdoor play isn't part of everyday life today the way it was years ago. But it's time to create unstructured outdoor play for the future. Together, let's ensure that outdoor play is as important to today's children as it was to us. Let's not wait any longer to change the course of play. Now is the time to change our industry and shift society's perception of play from luxury to necessity.

Ian Proud has led the Inclusive Play initiative at Playworld Systems since its inception, culminating in the development of the Inclusive Play Design Guide, a manufacturer-neutral, inspirational and educational resource for inclusive play. He championed development of the nation's first electronic outdoor play product, and created the company's first market research department. Proud has a lifelong fascination with trends, the future and how we manage change. He is currently the research and public relations manager for Playworld Systems. For more information, visit

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