A study in Ireland has found that kids are losing the agility and basic physical skills we used to take for granted—skills such as jumping, running, being able to catch a ball.
An Irish Times article titled “Why are so many 12-year-olds unable to run, jump or catch?” was prompted by a study at Dublin City University that found these alarming stats:
Among 12- and 13-year-olds, 13 percent could master the vertical jump, 11 percent could master skipping, 29 percent could master the horizontal jump, 45 percent could master the overhand throw and 48 percent could strike a ball.
The Times notes that “skills that were generally mastered by six-year-olds are now out of reach for many children by the time they reach 13. These findings all point to one thing: we are sliding towards a crisis in public health and fitness.”
Kids who don’t start out physically fit are unlikely to suddenly start playing hopscotch at 35. So the key is to start playing young. And the key word here is “playing.”
Though the researchers conclude that “a major challenge will involve re-educating a new generation of young people about skills once considered routine” and that we must “build the teaching of these skills into preschools and primary schools,” I’d say that what we really need to build into preschools and primary schools is not more adult-led instruction but free time for free play.
Kids do not need to be painstakingly taught how to skip and hop by adults. Few children learned how to “steal the bacon” in serious sessions with trained professionals or even their parents. They learn when they are running around with their friends. In fact, when something becomes a class, kids—being human just like us—are less likely to do it, because now it has been defined as work. For instance, I loved jumping rope but hated all the calisthenics we were taught in phys ed.
One was a joy; the other, a chore and a bore.
Giving kids back time to play should be a priority. A new book by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson is already getting attention because its title says it all: “The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.” When kids have some un-micromanaged moments, they discover their own drive, interests and grit.
But seeing as it is hard for kids to just run outside and find other kids to play with in these structured, supervised days, the nonprofit I run, Let Grow, is recommending that schools stay open from 3 to 6 p.m. for after-school free play.
With the gym or playground open and an adult somewhere on the premises—available for emergencies, but not organizing the play—kids have a critical mass of other kids to play with in a place their parents trust. They have time to let their play unfold and friends of different ages to learn from and teach. There’s nothing more heartwarming than to see a socially awkward 9-year-old become a hero to a gaggle of first-graders.
So yes, they’ll learn hopping and jumping. They’ll also learn empathy, creativity and all the social and emotional skills we’re worried about these days, too.
Consider free play an after-school enrichment class that just happens to train the body, as well as the mind, heart and soul.
This is not just a “good idea.” It is one that can transform kids and their future, by allowing them to develop instead of just comply.