Why Our Teens Need to Play Again

You can't deny the research - unstructured free play has numerous benefits to our development, and yet so many of our teens have missed out.

I’ve been following Timbernook for years now, and ‘“Balanced and Barefoot” is one of those books that’s on my shelf of easy-to-grab resources. I had the pleasure of listing to Angela Hanscom’s Keynote presentation at the Outdoor Play Mayo Conference today hit some many of the pain points I’ve been thinking about and researching for the past few years. 

I’m of the full belief that play is something that’s important to us throughout the life span. She talked a lot about nature-based play and its contributions to both physical development, and also socioemotional skills in kids. Just the fact that uninterrupted free play in kids, especially with no to little adult involvement, really allows kids to explore so many skills that we take for granted, such as working out solutions among themselves when arguments arise, without adult intervention. I know this is something that was a given for me and my friends who grew up in the late 70s and 80s, but I feel like there is a lack of this now.  As parents, we tend to try to get involved and stop conflict instead of seeing where it goes.


So, this led me to wonder if our kids aren't getting some of these benefits of play when they are younger, could this be the reason for so much of the struggles that we're seeing in our tweens and teens now? In the quest to get ahead academically, did they miss out on some of the other key development factors that allowed them to put the book knowledge they're learning into practice and work towards their goals? When they come up against situations that aren't expected or don't go their way, do they have the socio-emotional skills to work through these obstacles, or is it something that shuts them down? Maybe they've had that path cleared for them in the past, and don't know how to handle the situation on their own. 


I’m not blaming anyone at all, because culture is what it is and it’s much different today than it was when I grew up. I am as much to blame in this as a parent with my own kids too - it’s our nature to want to protect them and reduce the angst and struggles they face.


So, what I want to do now is look at how we might be able to bridge that gap and help our teens (maybe ourselves) relearn some of those skills through age-appropriate play. Or, maybe even revisiting some of that play from our youth - creative games and explorations, fort building, obstacle courses (or races), survival skills, figuring out how to cross a stream when it’s flooded, etc. I love the outdoors, and Angela also reminded me of all of the sensory benefits of being outside (hello help for anxiety and depression). 


I look at the outdoor and nature programs near me and there are so few for the middle school and older kids. I know from talking to my brother, who owns Whole Earth Nature School, an outdoor education camp and program in Eugene, that these older kids are harder to wrangle in, but it’s just so needed. 


Our kids are struggling. I don’t know if it’s the lack of organic, unstructured free play as kids, or if it’s because that type of play stopped as they moved into tween-hood, or our shift to more focus on organized sports, or some other kind of disconnection from these relationships and experience, but we need to build them back up. Angela equates the process of building up some of these sensory benefits to that of building cardiovascular endurance or muscular strength - it comes over time and with consistent engagement in those activities. So, our teens and tween need this kind of exposure at least once a week. It will look different than a forest or nature school made for younger kids for sure, but what an amazing experience it could be. 


My wheels are spinning - many ideas that now I just need to figure out how I can put them out in the world.


Let’s bring back play. Let’s normalize being in nature and exploring how our bodies interact with it, without the fear that we’ve allowed to creep in for too long. 


I’d love to hear your ideas too. This might be a collaborative effort.

Categories: movement, mental health, teens, play


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