Kids are Getting Less Outdoor “Free Play” – And It Could Be Hurting Them

If you grew up before video games and the Internet, count your blessings.

Nowadays, taking away a kid’s video game or Internet privileges might seem (to them) like it’s the end of the world. On the other hand, more and more educators, parents, and child development specialists are starting to think it might be a good thing.

The problem: Kids today simply don’t get enough time to play outside, and technology isn’t helping. Outdoor playtime has been reduced (or eliminated) in educational settings, and decreased “free play” may be hurting your child’s development.

So, what is “free play,” and why is it important?  “Free play” is generally defined as unsupervised, self-directed play that isn’t part of an organized activity. It typically involves boys and girls of different ages playing together and is usually imaginative play and not competitive.

Researchers say free play is a necessary part of early childhood development for several reasons:

  • It helps children make friends and learn to get along with others
  • It teaches children to handle their emotions, including anger and fear
  • It helps children make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules
  • It teaches kids to share, make decisions, and solve problems


What Changed?

In the 1950’s, many American households were getting television sets. The new distraction could hold children’s attention for hours; as a result, going outside suddenly became less appealing. Unfortunately, the problem has only gotten worse since then. In the 21st Century, video games and smartphones have all but eliminated free play in our children’s lives.

“Since around 1955, children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities,” said Peter Gray, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Boston College in an article in The Atlantic.

Screens are a big part of the problem, but so is the “helicopter parent” phenomenon. While it is important to provide adequate supervision, children still need to feel a sense of independent play. It is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer,” states Gray.


What Was Lost?

So, what did playtime look like before computers and TVs? Let’s talk about the good ole’ days for a minute.

It is believed that children in prehistoric times developed into cooperative adults because of the same kind of unstructured “play” that modern-day children had until relatively recent years. According to evidence from 700,000-year-old children’s footprints found in Africa, “children had more responsibilities, less adult supervision, and certainly no indulgence from their parents.”

But, we don’t have to go back that far to see what playtime used to look like. Even after-school pick-up games of baseball in the streets, which you probably remember if you’re old enough to have children were “free play” compared to after-school little league games. This is because the pick-up game was about camaraderie, fun, and improvisation. The little league games contain more structure, rules, and a “win or lose” mentality that makes everything more competitive.

“We have been depriving children of the normal, noncompetitive forms of social play that are essential for developing a sense of equality, connectedness, and concern for others,” Gray said.


What Can We Do About It?

If free play gives children a chance to grow and develop in ways they don’t get from video games, television, or even structured extracurricular activities and sports, why aren’t more parents pushing their kids out the door and onto the playground?

There are various reasons. Some parents are worried about germs and allergens (even though indoor air is more likely to promote asthma and cause sickness). Others are worried about their child’s safety out “on the streets.”

In “today’s world,” we want to make sure our children are safe from harm and tend to shelter them inside from the physical harm that can be caused from playing outside or near ‘strangers.’ Because parents’ schedules have become busier, it is more difficult to find the time to go outside for supervised free play, and not all neighborhoods have a safe environment for children to play.  To help reduce this problem, neighborhood parents could come together to develop times for free play rotating turns to provide adequate supervision of the children. Many parents keep their kids indoors because everyone else does the same. Talk to the other parents about free play; the more common it is, the more accepted it will be, and the safer everyone will be together.

Of course, supervising children under the age of 11, especially on playgrounds, can reduce risks. Some older kids may be able to be given ground rules and boundaries regarding limited supervised play and be sent out into the sunshine.

You will never eliminate all risks, but you can cause harm by being overprotective. Allowing your child to walk and ride their bike in the neighborhood not only gives them much-needed physical activity, but it can also develop safety awareness. You may not find this to be very reassuring, but research shows that children are far more likely to die in a car accident than they are to be hit by a car while playing outside or riding their bike.

Parents get out there and play with your children! Throw a ball, play Frisbee, or head out to the playground. Their development is depending on it. Free play should be contingent upon having a safe environment.

Contact us to get details on how our No Fault Safety Surface and other surfacing products can make your park and school playgrounds safer and more attractive!

Before Parks Go Bad: Safety Measures & Community Action Can Give Public Spaces a Makeover

Does your park have a bad reputation? The perception that a public place may be unsafe is enough to keep people from enjoying their local park or playground. If parents and other community members think a local park is a safety risk, they will steer clear of it whether or not crime is actually being committed there.

What contributes to this perception of risk?

It could be something that doesn’t have an easy solution. A persistent homeless presence, continuous vandalism, or faulty equipment, for example, are tough problems that won’t go away overnight. But most of the issues that could give your park or playground a bad reputation are things you can handle. Parks and school  administrators should recognize these issues and take steps to make the community feel safer. Ultimately, if you can make residents feel proud of the public space, it will encourage more utilization as the community takes ownership of your park and everything it offers.

Here are some safety measures and other steps you can take to increase confidence in your park and promote community activities.

Keep the Schedule Full

A busy park is a safe park. Chances are your park or playground has peak times when children and adults can be found there, but what about the rest of the time?

What can you do to increase activity during the times of day and days of the week when the park is normally quiet? Quiet times are usually early mornings and late evenings during the work week. If you schedule group activities and other programs you can make the public feel welcome throughout the day and into the evening.

What sort of activities might these include? Organized sports and after-school programs are always popular. Here are a few more ideas you might consider:

  • Off-leash dog events
  • Family-friendly outdoor yoga, Pilates, or tai chi
  • Teen programming, including movie night or an ice cream social
  • Outdoor nature study and guided hikes
  • Exercise meetups for senior citizens
  • Plant swaps and botanical tours.

Do you have room for a picnic shelter, tables, and grills? Encouraging families to gather for meals will go a long way towards making everyone feel at home.

If possible, make sure these activities are visible from outside the park. With concessions and scheduled events throughout the park, you make it obvious to everyone in the neighborhood that people are there and something fun is happening.

Here’s one case study: a park in Syracuse, New York, had a reputation for being unsafe. Residents and members of the Syracuse Healthy Neighborhoods partnership worked to draw more people to the park with events like youth softball, a free summer camp, and weekly live music. These activities strengthened social support for the park and helped the community develop a collective sense of pride. Again, when you have people in the park, you ultimately create a safer park environment.

Keeping Up Appearances


Vandalism is an example of something that increases the perception that a public area is unsafe. Remove litter and graffiti quickly so it is clear that your park is being maintained. Adequate lighting is another way to keep your park or playground safe and help community members feel more at ease.

Along with efforts to combat litter and vandalism, be sure to have clear signage available. Maps and clear, descriptive instructions promote a sense of safety and deter inappropriate activities. Plus, they’re helpful for everyone!

Promote Safety and Inclusivity


Of course, your park should meet all applicable ADA requirements so your space is welcoming for people that use mobility devices.

You should also make sure playground equipment is safe for children with and without disabilities. That’s why frequent playground inspections are an important part of making playgrounds safer for the children who use them. (Check out our blog, Does Your Playground Pass or Fail? See Your Safety Report Card.)

For example, elevated surfaces should have guardrails or protective barriers to help prevent falls. Look for broken equipment, including protruding bolts and splinters that can cause scrapes and cuts. Remember: wooden equipment can splinter with age, while metal surfaces exposed to bright sunshine can become hot enough to cause burns.

What are you doing to cushion falls around raised play equipment? According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, every year 200,000 children suffer playground injuries serious enough to require a trip to an emergency room. “Loose fill” materials, such as wood chips, are common surfacing choices that can protect kids from these kinds of injuries. However, these fill materials only work if they are consistently monitored to ensure they maintain a depth adequate enough to disperse the force of impact.

For easier maintenance and depth requirements, consider surrounding potentially risky areas with poured-in-place rubber safety surfacing, and you will have an attractive, effective way to cushion falls without always having to rake loose fill materials back into place.

Train Your Park Staff

Make sure park employees and groundskeepers have the training needed to help keep park users safe. This includes making sure they have a clear plan in case of emergencies. If you have an automated external defibrillator (AED), make sure workers know how to use it. If your park includes a public swimming pool, make sure lifeguards are properly trained in first aid and CPR. Swimming pools surrounded by slippery surfaces need the right safety surfacing to prevent slips and falls.


Will employees be driving municipal vehicles? Make sure they meet the driver requirements. And of course, you may want to conduct background checks for positions that have access to resident information or that involve contact with children.

Get the Locals Involved

When community members feel like they have a stake in their local park, the sense of ownership and civic pride encourages consistent use and active stewardship. Neighborhood watch groups can coordinate with police to keep an eye out for illicit activity. Community policing builds connection between police officers and residents. When everyone contributes to make the park a better place, it is a win-win for all involved!

Need more ideas for boosting safety at your park or playground? No Fault can help! We are the nation’s leading provider of resilient rubber surfaces for playgrounds, splash pads, water play areas, jogging tracks, and more. Our safety surfacing has been installed throughout North America since 1974. Contact us to speak with one of our knowledgeable representatives today.

No Fault Project Spotlight – Keysville Dog Park Playground, City of Deltona, Florida

No Fault partnered with Miller Recreation to create a very striking playground for Keysville Dog Park in the City of Deltona, Florida.  Miller Recreation provided the colorful Miracle play equipment, and No Fault provided the vibrant, blue No Fault Safety Surface.

Joe Miller mentioned that our customer, Mark Manning, Assistant Director for Parks & Recreation in the City of Deltona, wanted a very colorful and inclusive play area that children of all abilities could enjoy.  Mark chose colors of red, blue, and light green for the play equipment and paired it with bright blue safety surfacing.  Ramps were installed for children who use mobility devices, and a 14 foot mega tower was installed for children to enjoy climbing.  No Fault’s blue poured-in-place rubber surface complements the playground’s color scheme.

The City is working on installing sidewalks and grass around this play area. Once that is completed, the playground will be open to the public.


Mark Manning stated, “We are very happy with the finished product.  The colors of the play equipment and surfacing are bright, vibrant, and inviting for the children to enjoy.   We plan to make this color scheme along with the poured-in-place rubber surface a “standard playground design” for all of our park playgrounds in Deltona so residents of all abilities can enjoy it.  Although the park is not open just yet, we went out and walked on the No Fault Safety Surface yesterday, and it is much more spongy and absorbent than any surface we’ve ever had!”


Need some help designing your new playground?  Would you like a rubber safety surface that will protect the children who use your playground from serious injuries?  Contact No Fault today to find out more about our No Fault Safety Surface.  Let us help you design the playground of your dreams!