Thursday, February 10, 2022

Returning To Normal Is The Last Thing We Need To Do

The central purpose of every human community that has ever existed is to care for children. As I wrote previously, the only question is "How?" 

Generally speaking, modern society has answered that question in a way that gives children a raw deal. While it's certainly true that we're good at keeping them alive by historic standards, data collected before the pandemic tells us that the rate of diagnosable childhood mental illnesses, is increasing at an alarming rate, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that as many of 20 percent of American children have been diagnosed with behavior problems, anxiety, depression or some other mental disorder.

This should concern us. It should make us step back and seriously examine how we are answering the foundational question of our society. Certainly, if we wanted to, we could do a better job of caring for children. Many individuals, including many of the readers of this blog, have done just that. I know that among the people reading this post there are thousands of homeschoolers and unschoolers, practitioners of attachment parenting and play-based education, people who have elevated caring for children to its proper place in their lives. I know also that there are thousands of others who, for economic reasons, are not yet able to make such dramatic changes their lives, but who are doing everything they can to assure their children the kind of childhood they need and deserve. Sadly, that still leaves tens of millions of children existing almost as a societal afterthought.

We've mostly answered "How?" with schools and day cares, with children spending most of their lives in these institutions, largely indoors, places they have not chosen, doing what they are told, when they are told, being kept physically safe and sufficiently nourished, while being starved in every other way. To develop normally, children must spend a minimum of three hours a day outdoors in unstructured play, with many experts insisting that four to six hours should be the norm. Most American children are not even coming close to the minimum, let alone the ideal. This change alone, three to six hours a day outdoors in unstructured play, would be transformative, yet I would hazard that most of us can't even imagine how to make that happen in our own lives, let alone at the institutions that we've charged with the most essential task of caring for children.

The pandemic may or may be contributing to our children's risk of mental illness. There has been much handwringing with people demanding that our children must be returned to "normal" as soon as possible, citing mental health (often cynically). Where were these people before the pandemic? Normal is harming the mental health of 1 in 5 children. If the goal is mental health, returning to normal is the last thing we need to do. 

We are desperately in need of a transformation and this, I'm convinced, is where it must begin. Unstructured play outdoors has been the foundation of childhood for most of human history, going back into our hunter-gatherer beginnings, a time when caring for children was manifestly understood to be the reason for everything else. We have lost our way and it's not just children who are suffering. We could change everything if we could only agree to the simple truth that every one of us, not just children, requires hours a day to play outdoors. Imagine who we would become if we made that wish come true. We would, quite simply, become human once again.


Play is essential for mental health, not just for children, but for all of us. Whether you are just starting out as a play-based educator, are a veteran of play, or are a parent/caregiver interested in providing children a playful childhood, please consider joining the very first cohort for Teacher Tom's Play-Based LearningThis is my brand new 6-week foundational course on my popular play-based pedagogy, designed to make you think deeply about the role you play in the lives of children, and give you the inspiration, insight and tools needed to create an environment of genuine play for the children in your life. I can't wait to share it with you! Registration closes tonight at midnight. For more information and to register, click here

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