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“Just go outside and play!” Dubious “obesity” solution and questions of access and empathy.

Posted by on Nov 28, 2012 in Blog Posts | 8 comments

If you recall, our family recently ended our 18 month experiment in rental living. Tired of our peak-of-the-market mortgage and home-maintenance and looming fixes, we sold our home and many of our belongings 18 months ago and moved into a rental situation in an attempt to simplify. The apartment was roomy, had a fitness center, pool, movie room, lovely staff, but didn’t work out for a number of reasons.

One of the many gifts from this experiment was the understanding for different living situations. I wrote a little about my observations around the logistics of getting food to a top floor apartment and how the “obesity solution” of “Get thee to a farmer’s market!” assumes so much…

Similarly, the “childhood obesity solution” of telling children to “Just go outside and play” also assumes a blessed privilege.

Which is the reason for this post. Here was how this playing outside business has evolved for us. In our previous home, we lived on a busy street. We could walk or scooter on bumpy sidewalks, and walk in about ten minutes to a great local park. When we moved to the apartmenr, if I wanted M to play outside, I had to drive her to a park and sit there. I would pick her up from school, with a packed snack and water, and drive to a local playground where she could play with her friends. I tried to do this about three times a week for an hour or so. I could do that since:

  • I work from home
  • have a husband with the health benefits
  • I have a car
  • I have a smart phone so I can keep up with some business needs on the go

At our apartment, there were few options for outdoor play: a small courtyard, where neighbors complained of noise, or the kids in the landscaping. We occasionally resorted to playing Ogo sport in the hall where I had to shush my child. If we played a Wii video game with dancing or jumping, even at 4 in the afternoon, the downstairs neighbors would bang on the ceiling— two floors below.

Contrast then to our new home of  10 days. We now live on a quiet side street in a nice neighborhood. On our first day, while my husband and I unpacked, she played off and on outside for SIX HOURS. I met the parents of the three families where the children bounced back and forth from front lawn to backyard swings. The children are old enough to mind basic safety rules and they played and played. They rode bikes and scooters with helmets (some of them). Another parent had bought those plastic “children at play signs” and placed them on the street. Now and then a parent would check in. We all have cell phones, and when I went out to yell for M in the darkness, hearing shrieks and giggles form the neighbor’s yard, “M!! Time for dinner!” I heard,  “Coming MOM!” We walk to school that is four blocks away, we live two blocks from a playground with tennis courts, and soon and outdoor ice-rink. All free for the use. I feel so grateful.

And all the children left at the apartment building (“luxury”rentals) have no playground, and no place to ride bikes…

I’m just saying, many folks could use a little empathy, and a little imagination when handing down edicts to “just play outside.” It isn’t always that easy.

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  1. Eileen

    Thank You! It is very validating to hear this. A friend of mine who works in public health told me how the formula for determining how much money families get in food stamps uses a formula that assumes families have a certain amount of time to prepare meals. As a single working mother with a college degree, I was living in a modest apartment, driving an older car, buying my kids’ clothes at the goodwill and still, at the end of each month, had less left to buy food than I would have gotten with food stamps (which I didn’t qualify for) and zero time or energy. When friends would exchange ideas about recipes or foods to try or the best diet for a kid with ASD (oh yeah, my son has ASD, add that to the pile of stress) it made me want to cry. Fortunately my kids have the opposite problem and hover at underweight (every time they have a growth spurt their BMI drops and I get a lecture from their pediatrician) but it is very stressful, time-consuming and just difficult to put healthy meals that kids want to eat on the table every night, to take your kids to the park after a long day of work (since we have no backyard) or to find the time/money for sports and dance lessons. Damn near impossible. But it is very easy for 2 parent families living in houses with resources to sit and judge.

    • katja

      I’m so glad! I do address the budget constraints, I think you are finding some of the blogs, check out the comments. This comes up from time to time, and I try to be mindful of it. I’m glad it was validating. Yes, so easy to judge from a place of privilege. Join us on facebook, and ask there maybe? I’ll try to put together a resource so that I can point folks to one place when it comes up!

  2. cecile

    That sounds great… I mean, your new neighborhood. I agree with the rest of your article: for us, we moved from an apartment, it was nice, the kids were still very little so nobody complained of noise yet. We could play outside but I had to be there all the time, or walk with them to the zoo/park, etc (I actually miss Como Lake A LOT !). Then in Massachusetts, still an apartment/townhouse, all children played on the parking lot (enclosed on 3 sides, we put a sign in the driveway and one of the parents was always looking, some children were bigger, too). Here they can play outside, and it’s true, it’s a luxury. But I don’t see how that has anything to do with obesity, by itself.
    OK, so if you see a “for sale” sign in your street… e-mail me, OK ? 😉 I’m not kidding !

    • katja

      Cecile, I love how you said, “I don’t see how that has anything to do with obesity.” It’s so simple and true. Often, in public health circles, playing outside is proferred as a “cure” for obesity for kids, and also I hear this over and over. I have a weird profession where I tell people what I do (childhood feeding specialist) and they instantly launch into, “You know why kids are so fat today?” Then they lecture me about soda, or McDonalds, and often the cure is “playing outside” like when we were kids…

  3. JenC

    People also need to understand that just ‘getting outside to play’ isn’t a cure all for the dreaded ‘childhood obesity epidemic’ either. Among the children on our street at our previous house, one girl was much heavier than all the other kids. She also played softball, did cheerleading, roller skated up and down the street, rode her bike and was often seen racing to the park around the corner with a mitt and a baseball bat. The kid was ouside ALL the time – and yet weighed more than her friends who all did the same activities as she did. When the haters realize that exercise is fine, but it’s not the solution to the problem they perceive then maybe we can all have some peace.

    • katja

      well said. When I observe M’s schoolyard, the one girl playing football and soccer with the boys is much larger than average. And she is better than most of the boys.

  4. maggiemunkee

    not to mention that even if they are fortunate enough to have a safe place to play and adults to check on safety, fat or chubby kids who are told to go out and play can find it hard when the neighborhood kids bully them for being fat/bad at sports/whatever. it’s things like that that can drive athletically-minded but coordination-impaired kids to being antisocial and fearful and whatever other adjectives can be used to describe me. heh.

    go outside and play is never as easy as it sounds.

    • katja

      Absolutely. I remember in summer-school gym (don’t ask) there was a rather fat girl in the class. She was absolutely bullied, horribly. I remember walking home with her once, and two girls in a convertible from our class threw pennies at us and shouted insults. So, yes. It is rarely as easy as it sounds… I LOOOOVE that M’s school has a very athletic and large woman for a gym teacher. She seems to come up with tons of creative games for the kids to play. Some with balls, dancing, walking, relays etc… Seems pretty rare. I remember the days of dodge ball and running laps 🙂