What does it mean to parent in the 21st century? I have recently come across a number of studies and articles aiming to answer this question. Parenting has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. Many people lament the changes in parenting (think idyllic streets filled with children playing ball, mothers inside enjoying a cup tea and thoughtful conversation and fathers in suits at work in the city), while others excitedly expound the new developments in parenting (equal roles/responsibility in child care, more oversight and parental involvement, increased awareness of the importance of the early years, etc…).
While neither past nor present methods are perfect, parenting has come a long way and I believe that the past century of social and scientific developments has indeed created happier parents, children and families. But how can we continue to improve to create a better future for ourselves and our children?
One simple recommendation to wrap up my overview of the many, recent studies published on the topic is to keep play organic. By organic, I am not referring to the over-priced foods that we feel we ought to to fill our refrigerators with, rather, the nature of our activities and surroundings.
Research reports that parent schedules are too full, children are logging record time spent in front of the television and other media devices, and that kids spend much of their day in structured activities. Our culture may believe that spending absurd amounts of money on organic groceries (are you picking up a biased tone on that topic?) is worth the investment, but it has voted in the opposite direction when it comes to an organic lifestyle. The votes have been tallied, twenty-first century families prefer structure, challenge and a bit of chaos. What is wrong with any of these preferences? Even chaos has it merits. Am I the only one who looked at that list and tried to justify each? Scientific evidence may suggest that we take another look at our lifestyles, surroundings and how/where we encourage our child to play.
A new wave of research focused on studying the development and execution of community parks is particularly fascinating. Scientists have discovered that children prefer and learn more from organic play equipment to the inorganic, expensive structures commonly used on playgrounds. Communities that spend a small fortune on the best new play equipment see less “high level play” (as determined by the researchers) as opposed to communities who use more natural settings (logs, trees, bushes, streams, grass, etc…) for children’s play. Meaning that kids prefer and learn more from running on dirt and grass to the best, brightly-colored rubber mulch and climbing in trees as opposed to a beautiful playset. In this case, research does not suggest that some playgrounds do not promote “high level play” because daily schedules are too full to permit play (as we are accustomed to hearing), rather that children are not being offered the optimal play opportunities on many modern playgrounds. What type of surroundings do promote “high level play”?
Communities with more walking trails also are home to the children who log the most sedentary hours in front of the television, while communities with a large, open, natural area with a water feature log the fewest childhood sedentary hours. This research suggests that simply choosing an organic setting for your child to live and play in can contribute significantly to their overall health. Perhaps a child’s preference for organic play is the culprit behind the phenomenon of the empty playset. I have driven by several of the same backyard playsets on my rounds about town and over the past 3 years have never once seen a child using even one of the playsets. This of course is not quality evidence to base any conclusion upon, but an observation worth considering.
The Intelligent Nest is NOT a venue for making broad, sweeping assumptions about studies with shocking headlines. (Remember most research articles identify variables with a correlation, but not necessary a causation.) However, The Intelligent Nest is a forum for considering new practices for child care and parenting. The good news in this case is that the research seems to suggest that you can save your money on the expensive play equipment and instead enjoy the natural features of your backyard or local park for free. Don’t feel that you need to move out of your urban home to a rural area so that your children can experience “high level play”. Instead:
1) Seek out natural environments within the city or suburban area where you already live, preferably with water.
2) Pencil in time at the park or backyard just as you would a gymnastics or karate class. Strive to be enjoy the natural setting in at least 30 minute, uninterrupted blocks of time.
3) Save your money. No need to buy expensive outdoor equipment. Use or enhance the already natural environment that you have access too.
4) Keep life and play organic! Get outside, enjoy natural beauty, breath fresh area, de-clutter and de-stress life and play.