Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children, by Angela Hanscom
One of my all-time favorite TV shows as a child was Reading Rainbow. The show, hosted by LeVar Burton on PBS, promoted the importance of reading and featured children reviewing their favorite books. As a kiddo, I dreamed about being on Reading Rainbow and telling everyone about MY favorite book. Thanks to the US Play Coalition, and their commitment to advance and promote play for people of all ages, I get the chance as a playful adult to provide a review of my favorite playful books! Angela Hanscom wrote the first book that I’ll review – Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children (New Harbinger Publications 2016).
Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook, a nature-based developmental program for children, was inspired to write her book because of the interactions she had with the children and families in her practice. She noticed that kiddos were having problems with balance and coordination that were not typical for children their age. Due to her training and observations, she discovered that children’s opportunities for free play has been removed from children’s everyday lives.
Hanscom’s book advocates for unstructured outdoors play and promotes it as the most optimal way for children to development healthy bodies, minds, and social skills.
In each chapter, Hanscom describes the benefits of play by addressing questions that many parents have about their children’s development such as “Why can’t my child sit still?”, “When is my baby ready to play outside?” and “Why is my child so emotional?” Hanscom wrote this book primarily for parents. As a parent myself, I fully appreciated the reasons she provided for the crucial role that play has for children’s development of physical, emotional, social and cognitive skills. However, this book is also important for individuals who do not have children or, more likely, have many children, such as educators, principals, superintendents, leaders at childcare centers, and child advocacy groups. Hanscom provides insight, examples and additional resources to show that playing outdoors can address and minimize behaviors like inattentiveness, lack of creativity, fidgeting, and aggression.
The book also outlines in detail the ways that children benefit from outdoor play particularly to support and build upper body strength, endurance, core strength, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, proprioceptive skills (i.e. awareness of the position and movement of the body), auditory senses, and sensory integration skills (i.e. allows us to make sense of stimuli). Hanscom is particularly interested in understanding sensory processing disorders; this occurs when children have difficulty making sense of external stimuli and using it to create a larger understanding of their world. Children’s senses are most aware when they are outdoors in nature, crunching leaves, feeling mud, dirt, or sand and smelling fragrant breezes. Hanscom fully makes the case that anything that can be done indoors can be moved outdoors.
Caregivers and educators may identify with information from the chapters depending on the age of the children in their lives. Personally, the sections devoted to school-age kiddos and the risk for their overuse of technology, limited opportunities for free play due to increased structured organizations, and many schools’ dwindling time devoted for recess stand out as significant. In Chapter 3, Hanscom makes suggestions about ways to allow children to be active outdoors without a lot of adult interference. Adults, as we know, can suck the fun out of play! Hanscom spends considerable time addressing how decreased recess, in favor of increased classroom seat time, has negatively affected children’s cognitive development. The resources she provides in the book provides a guide for key points that any recess advocate would bring to a school board meeting and discuss why recess is essential to support children’s cognitive and academic development.
Hanscom is at her best when she helps parents address their fears about outdoor play. She takes a no-nonsense approach, addressing the ways in which parents create too many rules and overschedule their children’s lives to the point that kiddos do not experience the wonder of boredom and have few opportunities to daydream. She makes suggestions about ways to get outside as a family and get “back to the basics and focus on simplicity for the sake of creativity.”
Hanscom’s book should be on the bookshelf of every parent, grandparent, caregiver, educator, or administrator who values children’s time outdoors and wish to promote all the ways that play can affect children’s growth and development.
Heather Von Bank, PhD, is Chair and Associate Professor of Family Consumer Science at Minnesota State University-Mankato. She teaches and advises in the Child Development and Family Studies area. Her specialty areas include research on parent–child relations during the stage of adolescence and family life issues. Dr. Von Bank is co-author of the book “The Power of Playful Learning” and a member of the US Play Coalition’s Steering Committee.