Making a Mess of Human Development: The Terrible Impact of Our Choices for Children
The other day I read an article that literally made me cry. I thought I’d heard it all when it came to the lack of movement in children’s lives, but this piece alerted me to something I hadn’t come across before: children are falling out of their chairs because they’re not moving enough.
Is this an unusual occurrence? Sadly, no. One first-grade teacher reported that she took a tally, and in one week her students fell from their chairs 44 times. Forty-four times!
How is this possible? What the heck is going on? Well, it turns out that today’s children have proprioceptive and vestibular systems so undeveloped that, as the previously mentioned teacher described, it’s like having penguins trying to sit in chairs. A funny image but a not-so-funny situation.
If you’ve studied motor or human development, you know that proprioception is awareness of the location of one’s body and body parts in relation to the environment. With a properly developed proprioceptive sense, children are able to perform such tasks as feeding themselves without having to watch their fork travel to their mouth, or can climb a staircase without looking at their feet. The vestibular sense detects gravity and motion to create an internal sense of balance. It coordinates with the other senses to help a person get upright and stay that way. With a properly developed vestibular sense, children will have, among other things, better balance, visual tracking, and self-regulation. When both the proprioceptive and vestibular senses are well developed, sitting is much easier for children.
The critical period for development of these senses is before the age of seven. And the best way to promote their development is to allow children to move — to jump, bounce, spin, swing, and hang upside down. Yesterday’s children, who had far more unstructured time and access to such equipment as swings and monkey bars, had ample opportunity for these experiences. Today’s children, many of whom are enrolled in school and centers from infancy, and who are leading highly scheduled, overprotected lives, are being denied these opportunities. It’s no wonder they have trouble sitting still and staying upright!
The wonderful pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom, author of Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident and Capable Children, tells us that children are supposed to be moving rapidly in many different directions on a regular basis. That means playing tag, spinning, rolling, hanging upside down, and jumping from high places. Even if today’s overscheduled children had time for such activities, there are few places they could engage in them. Parents are terrified their children will get hurt, so they discourage, or even forbid, anything that looks like risky play. (“Don’t run!” – which I once heard a mom telling a child running uphill on grass. “Don’t spin; you’ll get dizzy.” “Don’t do that; you’ll get hurt!”) “Risky” play rarely takes place on public or school playgrounds these days. Swings, monkey bars, and those wonderful, dizzying merry-go-rounds have all been removed. And tag, running, and cartwheels, among other necessary-for-development actions, have been banned at many schools.
As I’ve said in many keynotes, Mother Nature gave us everything we need in order to develop properly. But instead of appreciating and respecting the process of human development, we’re thumbing our noses at it! We seem to think we can do better!
In fairness, I understand that fear has overtaken adults. As I’ve mentioned, parents are terrified their children will get hurt. And they’ve been led to believe that nearly everything their children do will lead to pain and injury. Because of this, school and city administrators also live in fear – of litigation.
But as I’ve written before, we have to get our priorities straight! We have to stop giving imagined fears more power than the real ones — and the real ones include the impact that all of this nonsense is having on our children!
After I read the piece on children falling out of their chairs, I imagined the many problems associated with such a lack of spatial awareness. How will they navigate their environment? How will they later drive on a busy highway, fit their cars into parking spaces, avoid people on a crowded city sidewalk, or even maneuver shopping carts down grocery store aisles? Life without a well-developed proprioceptive and vestibular sense will certainly lead to pain and injury!
Seriously, who could read about children continually falling out of their chairs in classrooms and not be shocked and appalled? Who could look at the horrifying changes we’ve wrought in children and not want to reverse our mistakes? Human development is a miraculous process. Who among us dares to believe that we can improve on it?
If you agree with my thoughts on the importance of movement in children’s lives, check out my online course,
“Avoid Challenging Behavior in Your Early Childhood Setting!”
The learning modules include easy-to-implement sample activities and “Curriculum Connectors,” so you can understand and explain why the children aren’t “just playing.”
I am a pediatric PT and it starts in infancy. Baby containers and devices that prevent normal movements. The back to sleep campaign which started in 1992 has started an epidemic of torticollis, plegiocephaly and motor delays.
So true, Christine! I talk about this all the time in my presentations. People have forgotten that the campaign slogan was “Back to sleep. Tummy to play.” That last part is being ignored!
Rae, I was going to say something along the lines of what you did…
The doctors expressed how important it was to make sure our kids got tummy time to us. So, we would spread out a blanket in the floor and put them on their tummies to play frequently. Our kids hated it at first, and would fuss, which might be why so many parents just didn’t put them on their tummies. They also got used to it.
Yes! Parents have to hang in there! And good for your doctors for providing such wise advice!
Another spot on article. When I had my therapeutic child care, we were outside a lot. Even elementary kids went outside before school. They needed to run, play, hang upside down, etc. It is so needed today. Thanks for all you.
And you as well, Linda!
So much yes to all of this! The impact of being in a container, in a flexed position, has had significant deleterious effects. Add in that children born after 2010 have had a blue-light screen in front of their eyes since infancy, and we’ve created an epidemic of children with bodies not prepared for learning. To this mess, add parents who can’t stand to be uncomfortable and swoop in to fix it all for their kids … including when a baby doesn’t like being on their tummy.
As a school-based PT, my numbers have sky-rocketed over the past three years (since the kids who were born in 2010–when smartphones hit the mass market entered school). In addition to seeing massive proprioceptive and vestibular dysfunction, we’re also seeing an alarming trend of kids with impaired interoception, which makes sense because the “8th sense” develops along the same pathways that the 6th and 7th senses do. As a result, we’re seeing so many kids with toileting issues–at school age. Basically, kids who aren’t fully toilet trained at the age of 5 and beyond.
I really appreciate all of your input, Kathryn. Depressing though it may be, people need to know what’s going on! I, for one, hadn’t heard about the toileting issue. Things have got to change — and change fast!
Great article! As a child play therapist and provider of Nature Immersion programs I cannot speak more highly of the benefits of child-led nature play! It is developmentally right on and the benefits and growth we witness is outstanding!
Thank you for sharing that Teece!
It’s not life if there are no risks. We all take risks, often without giving it a second thought. Learning about life includes learning about yourself, and what you’re capable of. Doing things as you feel comfortable, free of pressure from others, is the best way to learn – and that’s a completely natural thing to do, and has made humans what we are today. It’s the assessment of risk vs reward that takes time, and is an invaluable path of discovery. Those who hold their children back, because of their own fears, build fear and what can be dangerous hesitation, and self-doubt in children. Fear should not be the determinant of what actions to take. If it was, we would not drive cars, fly in planes, swim or even step outside the front door in some places. We need to encourage rational, reasoned thinking in children by communicating with them through things in life, so that the incidence of hurt or effects of actions are considered, and risk is mitigated by reality.
Beautifully stated, Derek!
Thanks, Rae. BTW, I’ve taken the liberty of sharing this excellent article to Facebook groups, “Free Learners” and “Democratic Learning and Living”.
Thank you for passing it on, Derek! We can only hope it makes some difference.
Every little bit helps! I’ve been encouraging change for a long time.
After reading the article, Making a Mess of Human Development: The Terrible Impact of Our Choices for Children, I had an interesting emotional reflection. Two aspects that were neglected to be mentioned is the use of technology, and the hardships of the inner city.
In my teaching career thus far, I have seen students who took five steps and were breathing heavy because exercise is such a foreign concept to them. This society has become one of instant gratification.
With the click of a button, everything can be given to you. It is more interesting to the students to text and be on FB, then run around and play games like my age group did in the playground when I was a kid. Socialization was so different. Kids actually played games where we learned team- work strategies, and cultivated friendships and communication.
As a result, of the quick fix, another issue that is prevalent is the unhealthy eating that occurs in our society. Everything is initiated with food in advertising, media, tv. Not fruits and vegetables but fast, greasy and quick food. Advertising executives are so notorious for fooling the mind to think that this is what we want because they use psychological techniques to make us crave the unhealthy food.
Another problem that is prevalent in our society is that the citizens of the inner city are not given the opportunities to eat healthy. For example, in the city of Camden there is no supermarket. There is a food desert there, and nothing is being done about it. Instead of the city, creating a supermarket where the citizens can have a choice to buy fruits and vegetables, they are swarmed with corner stores, and pizza joints. It is a vicious cycle because eating unhealthy leads to diseases, and more problems. Many students are eating junk food that has chemical addictives, which cause learning issues. However, the economic inequality results in the low income parents inability to afford healthy eating because it is more expensive than junk food.
When families are struggling financially it is easier to buy 25cent chip boxes, then figure out how to provide a healthy meal. It is a matter of habit, but most importantly it is matter of having the means to be able to afford the healthy food. When governments are ripping the amount of money that they are providing the inner cities, and lessening the amount every year then how can you except the citizens of those communities to be able to eat healthy meals, and worry about their physical health.
Also, being able to play outside requires you to live in an area where children can run around freely, and have parents not concerned that their child will be taken, raped, shot, beaten. That is a very interesting question that I would love to hear Ms. Henscom’s response to. When you are afraid to step outside, do you really think you would be concerned with the lack of exercise your child is getting? Programs where students can use the local gym, or have teen nights where they could feel safe in their environments might jump start them to have an interest in physical activity. Police need to focus on the streets, money needs to be put into the inner cities, education problems need to continue to be incorporated and with time things will get better. However, it is easier to say things should improve and wish upon a star. As we teach our students, don’t be reactive, be proactive. Each of us needs to step up and figure out how we can create an environment where students will run, jump, laugh and play and truly enjoy childhood.
I don’t disagree with anything you say here, Julia! I don’t know what Angela’s response would be to the issue of the inner city being unsafe for outdoor play, but I suspect she would agree, as I do, with your assessment that the police and policymakers need to step up and create change. What she and I often fight against is the common belief of parents not in the inner city who continue to believe that going outside is danger when, in fact, it isn’t. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!
The common practice of witholding recess as a punishment for children,was my biggest pet peeve while working for the school system.
If a child is fidgety in class and cant stay still,
Then making him sit through recess for not paying attention will not help the situation in any way.
His pent up energy and frustration will just make the situation worse.
Recess is so important and many schools do this as punishment to our children.
It creates a vicious cycle, and creates an angry, frustrated child forced to sit in a chair as punishment.
Ginny, I couldn’t agree with you more! The withholding of recess is one of my biggest pet peeves…and I’ve gone so far as to call it child cruelty. Thanks for weighing in!
Thanks for this article! I was surprised to find out from a teacher acquaintance that many children have difficulty walking on uneven surfaces such as a rocky beach or forest floor. These children simply aren’t used to these kind of environments and haven’t developed the physical skills to deal with them, so they are at more risk of slipping and falling than previous generations who played outside more. It makes me sad that they aren’t getting to enjoy the same activities we did as kids, and that it might affect them as adults too.
Sad, isn’t it, Hermione? If only parents could understand that they’re putting their children at greater risk by overprotecting them from the natural activities of childhood!
Great article. I completely agree with what you’ve written with one small “but…” The article makes it sound like all we have to do is get our kids outside, energetically free playing and then they won’t have any sensory processing issues. If that was true, then my eldest wouldn’t have hyposensitivity to proprioception and Interoception, and she does. I can only assume that all that play reduced her processing problems, but it wasn’t enough to eliminate them.
Thanks for sharing that with us, Kathryn!
Thanks for this great article and I agree with it. Children’s ability to sit, listen, balance, etc are behind where they were when I started teaching 30 years ago. Media is one cause, as is our fear of children getting hurt and trying to create risk free environments for our kids. Many young children spend most of their day in ECEC programs where they are not allowed to go barefoot for fear they might cut a toe or get a splinter. There is a movement to talk about the importance of risk and we must keep talking about its importance for development- all developmental domains rely on these types of activities.
There is one thing that we need to keep in mind though and that is to look at how physical development happens across cultures. I am particularly thinking cultures that contain their children in infancy with no negative impacts or delays in physical development. I read one article (I cannot find right now) that talked about one culture that contained their infants, but do physical movements with their infants also. I do not think we fully understand everything that impacts children’s physical development and we need to do cross-cultural research to get that understanding. Just a warning to be cultural sensitive- when you tell a person from a culture that their child won’t develop you are not only demeaning their culture, but stating an untruth that harms the respect for the research we do as ECE professionals.
I agree, Kim — both with the notion that we don’t yet fully understand everything that impacts children’s development, and with the contention that we need to be mindful of other cultures. I imagine that the “containment” of infants in other cultures must be quite different from ours; i.e., moving infants from high chairs to carriers to car seats, etc. One pediatrician estimates that our infants spend about 60 waking hours a week contained!
My primary complaint in this post, however, is that we’re keeping ALL young children from getting enough movement — from infancy on up. When I hear stories about children falling out of their seats (the teachers in a K-6 school in Phoenix at which I was presenting yesterday confirmed this was happening there), unable to walk a block without being winded, or walk on uneven surfaces, I can’t stay silent! We can’t let this continue.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Kim!
thanks this is so why I do forest school, giving young children these opportunities to run hang upside down spin. (although sometimes I get too dizzy to do this with them for long!!) Yes I did Tummy time too but youngest is 18 oldest 22. But I didn’t understand this when oldest was young, its taken time so we need to reach parents at the right time, in their childs life ie when they are small and before they start school.
That’s funny, Nicola. You don’t have to spin with the children! I certainly wouldn’t be able to! 🙂
Just wanted to add that apartment living has a lot to do with this too. We have no outdoor space and try to offer our 4 year old opportunities to develop his gross motor by regularly bike riding, going to the park and with indoor balance beams and stepping stones (not to mention old fashion jumping on the bed and our poor couch). He also attends swimming, jiu-jitsu and soccer but all he really wants to do is run and play chasing. Imagine our surprise when we turned up to preschool earlier in the year and on the first day were told that tag and running were not allowed because they are ‘dangerous’ games. Not sure how my generation ever survived the then unknown dangers of tag…
I applaud your efforts to keep your son physically active. It’s enormously frustrating when schools and centers implement ridiculous policies that ban it! They’re not protecting the children; they’re trying to protect themselves from potential litigation. The end result of “no running or tag” is far more dangerous (unhealthy, unfit children) than the scrapes and bruises that might come from physical activity. This infuriates me! If you have no choice as to the preschool you enroll him in, perhaps you’d consider advocating for running and tag. If parents stood up to this nonsense, things could change.
One baby “container” I do love and advocate for are wraps, ring slings, and soft-structured carriers. Instead of hauling them around in a car seat or sticking them in a swing, wear that baby around! Snuggle snuggle snuggle! 🙂 No plagiocephaly, great bonding time.
To me, that does not count as a container, but as assisted in-arms carrying. If you picture a 3-month-old baby in a front X carry in a stretchy wrap carrier, that baby is in the heart-to-heart position, cradled as he or she would be in arms with the weight-bearing spread over the infant’s body rather than being taken up by the base of the spine. The upper back is straight, arms flexed but free to move as in the natural tonic neck reflex, lower back supported in a neutral curve, with hips flexed in the way that is needed for development of the hip joint, and the whole thigh supported rather than just the baby’s bottom. This baby in a position to either snuggle into their natural habitat of the parent’s chest and rest and avoid overstimulation, or to use legs, back and arms to hold themselves upright and look from side to side. This position give many of the same benefits as tummy-time, but also with the added benefit that the infant will naturally adapt to the parent’s movements, increasing the amount of exercise and stimulation the baby receives. The effect is similar to one of the many reasons horseback riding is so effective as a therapeutic intervention: the sense of balance is constantly eliciting postural responses so that the muscles are working automatically to respond to changes in position. I was asked so many times when my first baby was born and I carried her everywhere in a sling “How is she ever going to learn to walk??” (to which I would generally reply: “How do you think she is going to learn to walk in a pushchair or car seat?” There was never any answer.) That baby crawled at 5 months, walked at 8 months and was copying ballet moves by the time she was 18 months; her balance and co-ordination have always been impeccable.
This is wonderful information. Any advice for some of us parents who due to health limitations, covid isolation, and having no one around to help with child care can help our child “catch up” as a 5 year old who has been limited in outdoor play for far too long? Can a child bounce back if given tons of outdoor time and exercise opportunities after nearly 2 years of limitations?
I’m glad you found the information helpful! As far as I know, there’s not yet any research proving that a child can bounce back. But I believe it’s possible. As long as the child is having fun and not feeling pressured to “exercise,” he should be fine!