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© Pieter Derycke 2019
  • Pieter Derycke

Where do the children play?

“I know we’ve come a long way,

We’re changing day to day,

But tell me, where do the children play?”

This opening quote is from Cat Stevens, from the song ‘Where do the children play?

If you use normal, natural movement as part of your approach in physical therapy, or in any other movement discipline, you must have noticed that in a lot of people, these natural movement skills seem to have been dormant. These movements, even in people who are in really bad shape and haven’t really moved in years, seem only to need a wake-up call. They reappear after a long hibernation. Sometimes it looks like the hibernation was not a single winter, but a kind of mini ice-age. And I agree, for some the wake up call needs to be louder…

If you’re not a movement professional, but are personally participating in natural movement, you will probably have felt this too. Some skills seem to come back from somewhere deep inside. And most often that awakening brings joy. The pleasure of jumping over an obstacle, the delight of swinging on a tree branch, the satisfaction of hitting a target with a stone, or even the triumph of surpassing your fear of balancing a fallen tree.

So these natural movements appear to have been learned in the past. Somewhere in the past of your life, and probably also in your ancestral past, knowledge and skills written down in the code of our DNA. This post is about the former, but let me elaborate a bit about the latter first. Stored inside DNA is the entire evolutionary history of the individual, waiting to unfold its potential. At birth all our species-specific movement capacities are present in our brain and body. It is our birthright to be good, capable and athletic all-round movers. But these inherent capacities are dependent on experience and environment.

So when did this first learning of natural movement skills happen? You’ve probably guessed it already; it occurred in your childhood. As a child, you moved and played and learned all these skills. You did not consciously move and play to learn these skills, but their mastery is the result of you having fun. I wrote a previous blog on how natural movement is learned, maybe it is a good time to (re)read it.

I’m thinking of somebody who never really did any sports, but as a child, played a lot outside. Now in his forties, after years of computer work, his physical condition is not good, but I’m a surprised at how quick some skills are learned. And this case is not the exception.

On the other hand, when I’m working with younger people, even the ones participating in sports, I sometimes see the opposite… I’m thinking of an elite 18 year old inline skater who could not do a ‘simple’ squat, and for whom it took a really long time to learn the movement. And this was just a bodyweight squat from standing to thighs horizontally. And no, there were no mobility issues. Interestingly, once the squat pattern was acquired, once the patient ‘owned’ the movement, the symptoms started getting better, and the turns in skating magically improved.

(This is obviously not a black and white thing. Some young people do have good overall movement skills and some older people never learned to move well.)

So now my concern is about these young people, who, in general, play less outside than the older generations. And we must add that the ‘older’ generations also played less outside than hunter gatherer children. Not TV, not computers, not smart phones, and not video games are the main reasons that keep children from playing outside. The principle reason is school! Other important reasons are restrictive environments (especially for babies and toddlers), and overprotecting adults. And not enough space for them to play freely.

To paraphrase Richard Louv, it is the first time in human history that children do not play outside. We don’t know what the results will be, it is an experiment never done before. I would add that it is the first time in primate history, or even beyond, that youngsters do not play outside.

My fear is that young people do not learn to move well. This has broad implications, certainly broader than movement patterns. These implications would be nice to explore in a next blog…

As long as I’ve been thinking about organizing natural movement session, I’ve always thought of doing something for children. Natural movement in a natural environment would help them to move better and more, and would take them outside and give them all the benefits of being in nature. Two birds with one stone!

But my thinking always comes back to this conclusion. Children don’t need adult supervision. They don’t need instructions on how to move. They don’t need someone to lead their play. They have enough of that already. I can’t help thinking that children just need to go outside and play.

Here are some relevant quotes from the important book ‘Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods. Evolutionary, Developmental & Cultural Perspectives.’ Edited by Hewlett and Lamb.

“A general lack of direct teaching and formal education are commonfeatures of hunter-gatherer life. Ethnographic works indicate that adults show little interest in educating their children and that children learn skills and knowledge by observing the activities of others.” (p. 344) [emphasis mine]

“We [the anthropologists] seldom observe educational attitudes by adults toward children. Children more than four of five years old form groups with older children and spend most of their daytime hours with peers. Children not only stay in the settlements, but also go into the forest to conduct various kinds of activities including play. Adults seldom interfere with these activities.” (p. 346) [emphasis mine]

“Interestingly, in none of the groups studied […] did adults either explicitly coach children to accelerate the acquisition of skills or direct them to perform activities for which they had sufficient skills or strength to be productive members of the society.” (p. 414)

This is very interesting, especially if you consider the following:

“Many […] describe a gradual transition from being a dependent recipient of care and provisions to being a participant in the social and survival skills more seamlessly than the typical patterns of socialization in western industrial cultures.” (p. 412) [emphasis mine]

But children don’t seem to be doing this vitally important playing. They are less engaged in physically active play and go less outside.

A dilemma! That’s why I try to offer the following compromise:

Young children (below age of 10) are allowed to come to natural movement session (for free) and hang around, look at their parents, try some things out, play in the neighbourhood of our session… Children older than 10 years are allowed to fully participate.

This allows for mutual inspiration. These children see their parent move and play, and since the best behavioural changer is behaviour, they will be inspired to move and play. But let us not forget the opposite: parents will also be inspired by the children and how they quickly learn movement skills and adapt them to the tasks at hand.

Also, since natural learning does not need a teacher, I try not to be a teacher. This applies as much for the adults as for the children. I try to let the participant experiment, explore, look at each other, imitate each other, and learn from each other. My task is to take care of safety, to stimulate, to facilitate, and sometimes to suggest technical improvement or teach movement skills. I also try to have a playful attitude, and to integrate play as much as possible. I consider it also my task to inspire by leading by example.

If you have any suggestions to make, please comment below. And if you want, come move with us. And bring your children with you!

Thank you for reading,