It has been hot, hot, hot here in Toronto so far this summer. It was a particularly hot day this past weekend, and we were doing our best to keep our children entertained inside. My daughter approached me and said “Mommy, can we go outside and watch the wind blow?” For real, she said this. This was one of those moments where I felt so very lucky to hang out with a 3 year old everyday. Heck ya, I want to go watch the wind blow with you. But, I am a millennial mom, so my second string of thoughts were, ‘will she get sun stroke?’ ‘She doesn’t have sunscreen on!’ ‘where’s her hat?’ and ‘where’s her water bottle?’ I fought these anxieties in that particular moment, and we went to run in the field and watch the wind blow. We got a few mosquito bites by the pond in the process and our cheeks were slightly rosy from the sun upon our return; but, it’s a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget, even though there was nothing particularly extraordinary about it.
This also inspired me to write this post, because so often I just play it safe while also trying to manufacture the fun and activity in my children’s lives. I try to avoid this urge to over-program whenever I can, but I find it very challenging and I am not always successful at it. When I think back to my childhood, however, I remember playing in fields for hours upon end; I remember climbing to the tops of trees and ‘GT-racing’ down massive hills. To be honest, I am not quite sure where my parents were when this was happening, but I loved this free-play and was grateful they weren’t around to rain on my danger parade. Of course, later on, I took to sport on my own volition, without any pressure from adults. I don’t think our parents thought about this much, as this was just the norm in the 80s. In actuality, there were important lessons embedded in these care-free moments of free-play, including testing physical limits, developing relationships, and failing in a low-stakes environment. The research shows that this generation may be missing out on these opportunities for free-play for a variety of reasons including this pressure to over-program, parents increased concerns about their child’s safety and, you know, cell phones.
ParticipACTION releases a ‘report card’ on the physical activity patterns of children and youth each year in Canada. In 2015, the report attributed high inactivity levels to a ‘protection paradox,’ that is, a parents intense focus on intervening in their child’s lifestyle to make sure they are healthy, safe, and happy (ParticipACTION Canada, 2015). This over-protection leads to restrictions on a child’s age-appropriate independence and coping skills, and therefore, their ability to locate their own joyful experiences all on their own. This only gets more difficult as they grow older.
Free-play is a heavily theorized concept in the world of physical education. This concept of humans moving their bodies for the sheer joy of it is a concept that Millennial parents, like myself, must work at. I see it as yet another important opportunity in a child’s life in addition to dance, soccer, piano lessons, etc. Frohlich et al. (2013) have documented the disappearance of free-play in children as critical to their development and physical health and my own research extends this finding into the activity patterns and self-surveillance of young people in their teen years. Sadly, many young people have expressed a lack of joy in moving their bodies when they reach high school years (of course, more on this later.)
So, back to free-play. Research shows that providing these opportunities for children at a young age can negate some of the anxieties associated with achieving a clear goal, a specific body, a desirable Instagram feed (just another goal) and may contribute to locating joyful experiences associated with the body. This applies to how we fuel our bodies as well; sometimes it should just be for fun. That’s why I have decided this is going to be a ‘1980s summer’ for my family. Our days so far have been spent outside, in bathing suits, eating freezies (full sugar), swimming and running around barefoot, with no regard for day or time. It wasn’t easy to avoid over-programming, but I am loving every minute watching my kids engage in the important ‘program’ of free-play.