The Unsafe Child: Less Outdoor Play is Causing More Harm than Good

The third grade classroom that was visiting our nature center for the day consisted of mostly boys–rowdy, loud and rambunctious boys. As we started out into the woods, the children spoke loudly to each other in anticipation of what was to come. After playing a quick game and explaining the ground rules, it was time for free play. As soon as the children realized they had the freedom to explore and build in the woods, something funny happened – they got really quiet. They dispersed and many of them started working together to build a large teepee.

Nothing gives me more pleasure then to see children contentedly building a structure using branches and logs out in the woodland. That is, until fear kicked in and everyone’s pulse increased a few notches at the shrill cry of alarm.

“Put the sticks DOWN!” I looked over to see a chaperone running frantically towards the children. “Danger! Danger!” she screamed. Momentarily astonished by the sudden state of perceived emergency, I finally found my voice. “It’s okay,” I yelled over to her. “I said they could use the sticks as long as they respect each other’s personal space.” Speechless, the chaperone frowned, turned and walked to a group of nearby chaperones. I could have stopped the kids from building at this point, given into the fear and encouraged them to do something that our society would consider a little less risky. However, I decided to let the kids proceed with their project.

The children, with the help of a few excited adults, proceeded to build a massive stick teepee. “Look at what we built!” one of the boys said proudly, showing off their work. “Can you believe it?” another child asked excitedly.

During this time of construction, ironically, no child got hurt–not even a scratch. This is rare. Children usually get some bumps and bruises while playing in the woods. Getting scrapes, bruises, and even scars was like a rite of passage when I was growing up. No cuts, no scrapes, nothing on this day.

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