Go Out and Play!

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.”
- Clinical report in PEDIATRICS, January 2007

“We run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves ... The more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom.”
- Sir Roger Bannister

When it comes to playtime, our society actually starts children out pretty well. It’s not until adulthood that things get screwed up.

The vast majority of elementary schools – including all of them on the Monterey Peninsula – include daily recess as part of the curriculum. It’s the time when kids leave the world of book reports and multiplication tables behind, and escape to a world of four square battles, double-dutch routines, JUST RUN, or any magical adventures they can imagine.

In middle school, recess is gone, but most kids have physical education classes every day, an “active break” where hopefully they are instructed in the importance of regular exercise and exposed to a variety of sports and games. When they get to high school, unfortunately P.E. isn’t required for 4 years, but there is a wide selection of athletic teams awaiting their participation.

Anyone who has played high school sports can tell you those memories are among the most cherished in their entire lives; every practice they attended, and every play of every game makes some tangible contribution to their experience and emotional happiness. Even for those who didn’t play sports, the fondest childhood memories are typically related to time spent playing outdoors: climbing to a tree fort, bike riding through the neighborhood, or splashing in a river or lake.

But when kids become adults and eventually take on jobs and families, they find that the world doesn’t place the same priority on recess and playtime. If they cling to those games they loved as children – by playing in rec leagues, taking lessons from a local club, or signing up for various races – they sometimes sense the “real world” frowning upon them. Parents aren’t supposed to leave their kids with a babysitter so they can work out; upwardly mobile career workers aren’t supposed to have free time for exercise; respected professionals aren’t supposed to be seen in sweaty running clothes.

Grown-ups gradually internalize these expectations and feel guilty or self-centered for taking time to exercise, even though it still stimulates their emotional well-being. And when life gets crazy and schedules get tight, exercise is almost always the first thing to drop off the priority list. “I just don’t have the time any more” is the most common remark you’ll hear from former lifelong athletes, and it’s the reason we hear most frequently when catching up with runners who used to train with us.

The irony, of course, is that exercise never ceases to be a necessary part of our happiness and healthy development. Adults can find the same satisfaction and enjoyment from games and races that they did as children. For the two of us, running offers the same escape from the troubles of the world that play breaks did when we were in elementary school. In fact, we find that whenever life gets the most difficult, stressful, or hectic, those are the times when we need our exercise outlet the most.

Exercise is recess, and it’s just as important now as it was when you were a child. Go outside and play!

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