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OPINION: Active play is essential to child development and happiness

February 19th, 2016 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

The Internet has been down all afternoon and I'm starting to get twitchy. I tell myself it's because I have work to do, like researching this editorial. But the reality is, I just want to entertain myself — take a twirl through my new email, a jaunt down Facebook, and catch up on the latest news of the day.

At first, I checked about every half hour. Now, it's probably more like every 10 minutes. There's no question, we are addicted to our screens. And if we adults, some of whom grew up before computers were even around, let alone ever-present, are now addicted to this constant flow of information and stimulation, imagine what it must be like for our children, who have never known a version of reality that didn't include screens.

Generations ago, before television, computers, tablets and smartphones, most of us were more active. We got outside more. We did more things by hand, sweated a little more, sat a little less. And few age groups have changed their patterns more than children. While adults still have to go through the rigors of day-to-day life — make dinner, do laundry — most children have a lot of free time, comparatively speaking. And they are spending less and less of that time engaged in play — creative, spontaneous, active and often outdoor, play.

A recent study underway through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology is studying the impacts of play, especially outside play, on Alaska Native children living in the remote Arctic.

The study looks at the effectiveness of a cross country ski program that has been in place in rural northern Alaska for several years. Youth were outfitted with monitors and data was gathered on how much physical activity and sleep quality the youth in the program had. They found that those involved in the cross country ski program were active for one-and-a-half to two hours a day, well beyond what is recommended for children. While the study didn't draw any conclusions about the impacts of that activity, others, as well as good old-fashioned common sense, say that youth need active play for positive development, not to mention health reasons.

But children need our help with this. There is no question that the constant stimulation of computers, televisions and video games are alluring, not to mention incredibly convenient. Most parents today use the devises for entertaining their children in doctor's offices, on long car trips and in planes. Children get conditioned to filling their free time with screen time, and they will bargain hard to get it.

Actually, that's a huge understatement. Extracting a youth conditioned to entertaining himself with unlimited screen time to do anything else is nothing short of surgery. By the time they are teenagers, such children will probably come seriously unhinged when devices are taken away.

Which is why it may be our most important job ever to make sure our children get to experience at least a little computer-free time every day. Maybe that means structured play, like the cross country ski program. Maybe it means just allocating the time before dinner as screen-free. While they might complain about it at first, anyone who has spent time in the outdoors with children will probably have noticed that they will create a game out of nothing if given the opportunity. Best of all would be if that time was used playing outdoors. Most of the time, with the right gear, this is possible. If it's not, at least offer up some active alternatives indoors. We are big fans of the mid-winter dance party. Turn up the music and move!

Screen time, really, is a gigantic, world-wide experiment. Travel and you will see, virtually everywhere you go, people are staring at their smart phones, passing time texting and scrolling. We don't really know yet what the impacts are going to be for the generations that are growing up steeped in technology. But one thing is for sure, children need to play and it's our job to make sure they do, just like it's our job to make sure they eat something other than candy and ice cream. It may not make our lives easier, but it will surely make theirs better.


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