The Decline of Play: Why Teachers Need to Get Their Students Outdoors

When I was a child growing up in rural Eastern Canada in the late 1970s and early ’80s, being a child was a very different thing than it is today. I was a Pre-Internet child. I was a Pre-Helicopter Parent child. Things were indeed different.

I grew up playing hours each and every day in the forest, fields, and streets around my house. Our parents never worried. We would roam the streets until dark and come home when we were too tired to play anymore or too hungry to have fun.

Fast forward to 2019.

I am both a teacher and a parent.

I teach young children and I parent young children. Those children don’t get to play as much as I once did. Those children don’t have the freedom I once did.

I am not going to speak or criticize to what is happening with young children in North America these days since I definitely do have a disconnect from where I was born and raised. I have spent the majority of my adult life living and working abroad in Asia so I will speak to what I deal with here on a daily basis.

I currently work at a large international school in the middle of downtown Beijing, China, one of the largest cities in the world.

Like most big cities, Beijing is crammed with people, lacks green space (more than many other places) and is polluted (also a lot more than other places).

My students are busy. They are in school from 8:00 in the morning and leave school at 3:25 in the afternoon. Some stay later to take part in after-school activities and finish at 4:40. Those kids, if they take the bus, may not get home until 6:00pm. Then they have to do homework. Many have other cram schools to go to and some of my 6-year-old students don’t get home from them until close to 10:00pm!

What do many do on the weekends? Their parents make them attend more cram schools.

Life is busy compared to the childhood I had, and not much fun.

During a Monday morning meeting, I often ask my students for a show of hands. “How many of you were able to play outdoors this past weekend?” Out of 25 students, normally seven or eight may raise their hands.

“How many of you went to a park, somewhere with grass and trees?” If I am lucky, one or two will raise their hands.

How much time do we have for scheduled outdoor play every day? In theory, about thirty minutes, but often, by the time everyone gets their jackets on, line up and get outdoors, the reality may be closer to twenty minutes.

For many of them, that will be the only twenty minutes they get to run around in an unstructured play environment all day.

That’s just sad.

That’s just unhealthy.

A few evenings ago, I was out for one of my evening walks. I like to listen to podcasts while I walk. Now that I am producing an education podcast, I enjoy listening to similar ones.

The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast with Jennifer Gonzalez is one of my favorites. In episode 113 of her show, she was interviewing the founders of the Global School Play Day. This is a grassroots movement to encourage schools and educators around the world to give their students one full day of uninterrupted, unstructured play (you all need to listen to this episode).

I love the idea.

I really love it!

They also talked about the TEDx talk by Dr. Peter Gray called the “Decline of Play.” It’s all about the lack of play children in our modern day have and how detrimental that is (PLEASE WATCH IT…it’s below).


For those who know me, you are aware that I am a passionate outdoor play and nature advocate. I KNOW my students and my own children NEED to have many more opportunities to play outdoors daily because they will be more developed children if hey do! I WANT them to have more chances to play outside.  Unstructured play is a very good thing and I wish more parents and educators understood and shared this view.

I am in a difficult situation due to the geography and location of my school. It makes it very challenging to get students outdoors and have fun and meaningful experiences, but with creativity and the effort to get the students outdoors, it’s possible.

Many, if not most teachers I have worked with over the years, rarely take their students outdoors. They feel the pressure to get the curriculum done. They feel the pressure to meet certain academic expectations and feel that if they take their students outdoors to play regularly, colleagues and maybe even administrators might think they are “slacking off.”

Many simply don’t take their students outdoors because it is easier to say, “Playtime! Play with the toys we have in the room.” Then the kids can play and teachers can get some important assessment or administrative work done.

I have made a vow to myself and my students. I have promised to all of us that if the air quality allows it (an issue in Beijing), I will take them outdoors for a full period each and every day to run, play, problem-solve, socialize, have adventures and let their imaginations blossom.

The curriculum and work I need to get done will get done. Any serious teacher will, of course, get those things done.

Kids are only young once.

Childhood is a magical time when they should be dreaming, playing, falling down, getting hurt and having those wonderful adventures with friends.

We as teachers, we owe them that.

We have the power to make it happen!




About the Podcaster/Writer:

Kevin O’Shea is a PYP/Nature/Outdoor educator currently based in Beijing, China. He is a father, husband, and avid conservationist. Kevin is an advocate for outdoor play and nature education.  He is the host of the long-running Just Japan Podcast and the BRAND NEW Making Better Teachers Podcast!

Twitter: @MadForMaple


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