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Lack of play hurting children’s mental health, experts warn

Larissa Liepins, CanWest News Service
International group of therapists blames problems on unstimulating activities

All is not well in the playgrounds of the world, says an international group of child therapists, including several prominent Canadians.

In a letter published Sunday in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, 270 professionals blame “the marked deterioration in children’s mental health” on an overprotective society and too much “sedentary entertainment.”

It cites a recent UNICEF report that found British children are among the unhappiest in the developed world.

In particular, outdoor, unstructured, and loosely supervised play is missing in children’s lives, resulting in “an explosion in children’s clinically diagnosable mental health problems,” reads the letter.
(11 September 2007)

Turning the Ride to School Into a Walk

Jane E. Brody, New York Times
…Forty years ago, half of all students walked or bicycled to school. Today, fewer than 15 percent travel on their own steam. One-quarter take buses, and about 60 percent are transported in private automobiles, usually driven by a parent or, sometimes, a teenager.

The change was primarily motivated by parents’ safety concerns – a desire to protect their children from traffic hazards and predators. But it has had several unfortunate consequences. Children’s lives have become far more sedentary. They are fatter than ever and at greater risk of developing hypertension, diabetes and heart disease at young ages.

The sedentary life also affects their behavior and the ability to learn. Studies have shown that children who engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity show improvement in concentration, memory, learning, creativity and problem solving, as well as mood, for up to two hours after exercise.

With more children being driven to school, traffic congestion has mushroomed. That has increased stress to drivers and risks to pedestrians and cyclists, as well as air pollution, especially in and around schools. Parents who drive their children to school make up about a quarter of morning commuters.
(11 September 2007)

Is It Normal To Let Your Kids Get Eaten By a Bear?

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
My neighbor and I were discussing a favorite children’s book the other day. The book is Robert McCloskey’s classic _Blueberries for Sal_ in which a mother human and her daughter go blueberrying, and have a minor mix up with a mother bear and her cub. The book is charming and wonderful, and one of my own childhood favorites, now beloved of my 3 year old. My neighbor was telling me that she loves the book, but can never read it without a frisson of horror at what a neglectful mother the parent in the book is. And she’s got a point. After all, the mother of a child who is clearly a toddler tells her daughter to go pick her own blueberries and leave mother alone to pick hers, on a wildlife rich hillside, where bears are known to be. Mother, the book tells us, wants to pick blueberries to can for winter. And given such parameters, she can’t spend the whole day watching her daughter, who is left to take care of her own needs.

But, of course, the book is older – it dates back to my own childhood, was released in 1976 when I was four. And my neighbor and I both remember from our own childhoods that the kind of parenting illustrated in the book was normal.

…Historically speaking, we are the only parents in history to spend this much time and energy protecting our kids. And, of course, it isn’t a hard sell – who doesn’t want their kids to live. If you offered most parents the blunt choice “ok, your kid can live to 58 and die of obesity and diabetes related consequences from being kept at home and indoors too much or your kid can have a 1 in 100 chance of simply dying when a car hits him” who wouldn’t take the 58? You’d be crazy not to. But, of course, those aren’t the real choices.

During most of history, most parents provided either benign or not too benign neglect by the standards of the day. Most parents were more like Sal’s mother than like I am – they expected children, from a very young age, to entertain themselves while they worked.

…Going to a less industrialized society means reducing some risks (car accidents), and raising others (fire). It means most likely having less time to supervise our kids, and it means that some parents will probably experiencing horrible outcomes. It probably also means in some ways other of us will get physically and mentally healthier children. Depending on how non-industrial, some of the consequences will be more serious than others. It depends what we lose, and what we can keep up. Bike helmets? Ration vaccinations to those able to pay? Do we try and keep the cars on the road at the expense of things like education and health care? That seems to be where we’re headed.
(6 September 2007)