For Children Of Color, Playing Outside Is Both Dangerous And Necessary

Parents of black and brown children send their kids out to play with looming fears they won't return.
06/19/2017 11:06 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2017
Bernd Obermann via Getty Images

Summer makes us think of freedom ― freedom to play, to laugh, to be with friends in our communities. For me, it brings up thoughts of cookouts, kids at the park playing tag or riding bikes. But I wonder how young black and brown children and their families will approach summer this year. The fear that many communities of color feel in America is real and understandable. They are afraid of deportation, regardless of legality, as ICE agents begin to detain legal residents who appear to be Latino. Many African-Americans are afraid of fatal police violence, as shocking videos continue to go viral. A rise of anti-Semitic and racist speech and graffiti create anxiety.

But this very real fear that can make families pull children closer ― never letting them out of sight ― can have a chilling effect on mental and physical health. Think about the lesson of Tamir Rice’s death, when a young, black boy was shot for doing what young children have always done, making pretend with a toy gun. How many black fathers and mothers observed and restricted their children from going outside?

Yet we know that play, especially outdoors is so important for health, especially the health of young children.

That is why now, more than ever, day care can play an important role in providing active play opportunities for young children.

Active play is an important part of keeping children healthy and reducing their risk of developing harmful chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and some cancers. In the United States, 12.1 percent of children ages 2 to 6 are obese and another 26.7 percent are overweight, putting them at risk for developing severe chronic diseases later in life.

We know that children in black and brown households often don’t have access to child care ― subsidies for low-income families are scarce and the cost of care is too high. Many children are cared for by family members, friends and neighbors. Our families, friends and neighbors also need to make sure children are given adequate spaces and time to play; and they need access to information on how to do that safely and in sometimes cramped spaces.

Statistics show that this epidemic impacts all children, but is worse for Latinos and blacks. With significant concerns about violence and harassment in communities of color, it can be dangerous for families to spend time outdoors at play at the end of the day.

Eleven million children are served in child care across the country every week. While on average, children are in child care for 36 hours per week, many facilities operate from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with children away from home for up to 10 hours, including before and after care. Children are developing healthy habits based on their home and child care environments. Research shows that children are not getting enough active play at home or in child care.

While centers have problems, the picture is worse for children in family child care ― businesses where three or more unrelated children are cared for in a provider’s home. Children do not go outside at all in up to half of family child care homes.

When we send our children to child care, we assume that they will have opportunities to play and run around ― there are regulations in place to make sure that children are safe and the care is good. However, each state sets its own regulations for child care; until 2014, there were no national requirements that all states have regulations on key health and safety topics, such as adult to child ratios, abuse and neglect reporting, and other rules to keep children safe.

While these changes are so important to keeping children safe, the changes in federal law only recommended that states develop standards for active play and nutrition ― it did not require them. States are not required to have standards that ensure that children receive recommended amounts of active play or physical activity during their time in child care.

Child care centers and family child care homes often have different regulations. Typically, the regulations for family child care are less strict than in family child care homes, which means children in care settings that demonstrate in research that they are less likely to take children outside for active play opportunities are not legally obligated to do so.

Only six states require child care to provide at least one hour of outdoor time per day. The rest require less than an hour or did not have regulations that required outdoor activity at all.

Of course, play can happen indoors. But as the research above shows, most of children’s moderate to vigorous physical activity ― the type associated with long term disease prevention and health ― happens outside. Only eight states require that toddlers receive 60 or more minutes of activity per day, either indoors or outdoors.

Providers need training to figure out how to get kids active in really small spaces in a safe way, especially since that may be the only opportunity children have. For too many children, their childcare setting is a safe environment where they can grow and play.

Every state should require child care to have a total of 60 minutes of active play every day. We need to make sure that all children get the chance to play—unafraid—with their friends during the day. And the country also needs to commit to making all communities safer, so that children truly can be children in care and at home.

(Krista Scott is the Senior Director of Child Care Health Policy at Child Care Aware® of America and a participant in the Allies for Reaching Community Health Equity Public Voices Fellowship with The OpEd Project.).

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