Systemic Abuse, Trauma and Neglect – Viewing child screen addiction as a coping mechanism for family dysfunction.

Every parent I’ve met professes profound love for their children and truly strives to create healthy and functional family lives. Parents who come from dysfunctional families have a much harder time navigating the pitfalls of parenthood as they simply cannot do what they were not taught. Being a functional attachment figure to a wee little child’s persistent needs requires a parent who has been able to put their own generational wounds behind them. Along comes the cell phone. In the absence of a functional attachment with their family of origin, parents are prone to creating unhealthy relationships with their devices. In the absence of a primary attachment figure, children follow the parents lead and form unhealthy attachments to their own devices. The cell phone becomes an interface between family members prohibiting a life sustaining and essential component of every childhood…healthy attachment. Addictions to devices really should be viewed as a coping mechanism for family dysfunction carried through generation after generation. Reframing child screen addiction as a coping mechanism for family dysfunction allows families, teachers and clinicians to focus on improved family relationships as a primary intervention in treating addiction. This article intends to cast light upon the probable origins of child screen addiction and offers the Healthy Families Questionnaire to guide families toward actions to improve healthy family relationships.

When I ask parents what their goals are for their child’s future they talk about happiness and success primarily in academics, relationships and health. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I assess family habits which limit goal attainment and frequently find that screen overuse is a predominant and disruptive factor. Some components of a functional family might include communication, affection, respect, play, responsibility and rules all of which diminish with screen overuse. Parents (and teachers) who overuse and overly rely on screens are turning their backs on children and in doing so, fail to meet their most basic needs for optimizing growth and academic success. This systemic over reliance on screens has an overwhelming effect on children and ultimately if left unchecked, leads to what could in some extreme cases be viewed as child neglect, trauma and abuse. In the absence of ‘real’ families and schools, children are attaching to their ‘virtual’ devices as a coping mechanism (Montage 2020) to help them to deal with system failures. I repeatedly quote in my workshops on screen overuse “It’s never the child with the problem, it’s the systems surrounding children that need to change”. What I mean by ‘systems’ are family, education and health.

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With recent Covid-19 restrictions, both home and school use of screen devices has risen markedly with many families and schools reporting managing healthy screen use is ‘virtually’ impossible. As parents, teachers and clinicians struggle to raise, educate and treat children, they have unknowingly created a virtual world devoid of all the factors required for optimizing child growth and success: movement, touch, human connection and nature. Screen-centric families are forgoing traditional ‘tried and true’ routines for toilet training, nap/bedtime, meals, outside play and chores ultimately creating children who are overly dependent, delayed, anxious, depressed, unable to sleep, have difficulty socializing, have learning difficulties, can’t self-regulate their emotions and/or have difficulty listening or completing requested tasks. 

Just as there are screen-centric families, there are also screen-centric schools. Screens in schools have limited research evidence as an effective learning tool (see Every School’s Research Summary 2019) yet has become the default education choice by most schools both pre- and post-Covid 19. Dr. Dimitri Christakis a renown pediatrician, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and editor-in-chief of JAMA Pediatrics states children are “social animals” and using a decision analytical model found that life expectancy of children would be greater if they attended school in person than online, yet educations systems continue with virtual instruction. Reflecting on above Building Foundations graphic would guide schools toward evidence-based practice of outdoor or nature-based education models where half the children are in classrooms for half the day and outside for the other half. Outdoors would provide access to the 4 critical factors for optimizing development, attention and learning as evidenced by prolific scientific research (Dresp-Langley 2020).

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Whether you are a parent, teacher or clinician reading this article, a first step toward gaining perspective regarding family function might be for families to fill in the Healthy Families Questionnaire. This scale will help families identify some of the components of a healthy family and discover things to do to improve healthy family function. The suggested process in filling out the Healthy Families Scale is to have a family discussion while answering questions and then working together as a family team to come up with ideas for improving family function and overall health. In treating children who overuse or are addicted to screens, we must bear in mind that a family centred approach is crucial for the process of family and generational healing. Addiction treatment must include endeavours to address the underlying causal factors of generational family neglect, trauma and abuse or we will be treating the wrong person for the wrong reason. We must help families to recognize that they are not a “bad” family but rather are a family who has survived years of dysfunction. Shining a light on a path toward healthy function will provide a framework with which to move forward toward generational healing.

Cris Rowan is a pediatric occupational therapist, biologist, international speaker and author of “Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children”. Cris is CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc., collates research for the monthly Zone’in Child Development Series Newsletter, and writes a feature article for her blog Moving to Learn.

Montag C, Elhai JD. 2020. Discussing digital technology overuse in children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond: On the importance of considering Affective Neuroscience Theory. Addictive Behavior Reports. Vol. 12;100313.

Every School’s Research Summary. Oct. 2019. Every Schools website. Retrieved on Jan. 11, ’21. Includes prolific research regarding failure of schools to following evidence-based practice with use of screens in education.

Christakis D, Van Cleve W, Zimmerman F. 2020. Estimation of US Children’s Educational Attainment and Years of Life Lost Associated With Primary School Closures During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(11):e2028786.

Dresp-Langley B. Children’s Health in the Digital Age. 2020. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020 May 6;17(9):3240.

Children aren’t Born with Mental Illness – We make them that way

Exploring ten myths and facts regarding child mental illness origins and treatment

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, research studies documented an alarming rise in child and youth mental illness. The long-term effects of imposed isolation of families and removal of family support networks are largely unknown, but early reports during the Covid-19 pandemic indicate an alarming escalation in child/youth mental illness. Historically, empirical evidence regarding the origins of psychiatric disorders has taken a back seat to industry-driven pharmaceutical studies e.g. the cure preceded the cause, with an alarming rise in use of psychotropic medications for children with problematic behaviors. Presently we are witness to an escalation in the use of screen-based devices (in homes and schools) with consequences threatening both their physical and mental health. Children are increasingly sedentary, isolated, overstimulated and often neglected resulting in problematic behaviors which again, can present as mental illness. A lack of pragmatic and thorough research surrounding mental illness has significantly muddied the waters, often confusing and further misdirecting child mental illness diagnosis and treatment. As mental illness soars in children and youth, the salient question needing an answer is “What are ALL the factors contributing to child mental illness?” This article explores common myths and known (but often understated) facts regarding mental illness, and could assist parents, health and education professionals in preparation for the upcoming onslaught of child and youth mental illness.

  1. Genetic

While heavily funded and pervasively researched, to date there are no identified genes for mental illness, but rather what are termed “candidate genes” or genes thought to be implicated in different mental health disorders. While ‘genetic predisposition’ is a term still widely referenced by health professionals, it is often confused with the term ‘familial’ or ‘runs in the family’. An interesting area of study is in the field of epigenetics where environmental factors or normal developmental changes affect gene activity and expression. Epigenetic theory precludes finding “the gene” for mental illness, as human genes apparently can change to some degree in relation to their environment. “The roles of the environment and learning behavior in the ultimate expression of genetically predisposed individuals are, however, undisputed” ( While it is likely that genetics plays a role in mental illness, funnelling the majority of research funding toward this area is unwise.

  1. Familial

Also undisputed in the research literature is mental illness in the surrounding family and subsequent impact on the mental health of its progeny. Children of parents with mental illness have much higher incidence rates of mental illness than children of healthy parents. Children growing up in a household with parents or siblings who have psychiatric disorders has significant negative impact on attachment formation between parent and child (see 6. Attachment). Parents with mental illness may have been exposed themselves to abuse, neglect or trauma. You can’t do what you don’t know, and parents who have not known functional parenting require support and guidance. Parents with dysfunctional social and emotional modelling can introduce other destructive variables such as unpredictability and stress for the child, increasing risk of child mental illness. Including families in health and education team meetings is essential for achieving best outcomes for children with difficult behaviors.

  1. Behavioural

As much as parents and educators would like to believe, normal childhood and child problematic behavior is not a diagnosis. When children are neglected, abused or exposed to trauma, their behavior is a mirror to the inner pain and struggle they are experiencing. Problematic behavior is a mode of communication, and if we don’t listen, the behavior escalates. As a pediatric Occupational Therapist, I am frequently referred to what I term the “sad/mad/bad” children who typically present with problematic behaviors which are associated with mental illness.  Early years are marked by sadness exhibited by despondence, vacant stares, and failure to thrive. Unchecked sadness often manifests at the toddler stage as being mad or angry with hitting, biting, and pinching others. By school age entry, this little human being has learned that being bad (punching, kicking, swearing) is about the only way they can get noticed and get their needs met. Sad/mad/bad children are crying for help, not for a mental illness diagnosis and certainly not for medication.

  1. Neurochemical

As stated previously, the development of psychotropic medications (anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, sedatives, stimulants, anti-psychotics) preceded establishing the origins of mental illness and is based on the “chemistry imbalance myth” which is still perpetrated by many education and health professionals. The brain is a bath of neurochemicals called transmitters which allow communication between nerve cells and is designed for homeostasis or balance. A person’s brain chemistry is changed by everything that influences him or her, whether internally or externally. When given exogenous chemicals such as an anti-depressant, the brain up or down regulates its own production of neurotransmitters to adjust to these foreign invaders resulting in a “neurotransmitter flood” with severe behavioural results (see 10 min. video by CCHR “Drugging Children”). While a child’s symptoms may in the short-term appear improved, long-term drug side effects are common and often are worse than the initial diagnosed symptoms. Acting out (violence) and suicide (acting in) are two of the most common psychotropic medication side effects which are more pronounced when prescribed for children in the early years; often these behavioral side effects are then further medicated. A travesty in the medical system is the lack of qualified psychologists and psychiatrists to adequately treat children with mental illness, leaving the less qualified family physician to diagnose and prescribe medications. While the discovery of certain neurotransmitters and their roles in mental disorders has led in turn to the discovery of seemingly effective medications to treat these disorders, it has also resulted in the unfortunate notion that medication is the only method of treatment that is helpful. We can stop this pervasive drugging of children with psychotropic medication by trial of other options (screen reduction, family support, increased access to healthy activities etc.).

  1. Organicity

Medical conditions such as brain tumors, overuse or improper use of drugs or alcohol, or traumatic injuries to the brain can result in damage to brain structure and function causing abnormal behaviors, Organic reasons for child problematic behaviour and/or mental illness must be considered and medically investigated prior to mental health diagnosis by requiring involvement of medical professionals on the child’s team.

  1. Stress

Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system causing the release of adrenalin and a flight, fight or fright (freeze) reaction. External stressors can be events (neglect, abuse, trauma) which activate the sympathetic response, whereas internal stressors can be thoughts, feelings or perceptions about those events. The interplay of these two forms of stress affects brain chemistry just as it can affect physical health, resulting in aberrant behaviours that can present as mental illness.

  1. Screens

Overuse of screen-based technologies is the greatest threat ever known to humankind. The ways in which we are raising and educating children with technology are not sustainable. What may appear to be anxiety, depression, ADHD or autism, may be early screen dependence or even screen addiction. Prior to mental health diagnosis and psychotropic medication prescription, children must have a screen media reduction intervention. Without this crucial step, well meaning health and education professionals have no idea what they are diagnosing and treating. For further information please read author’s published article “Unplug – Don’t Drug – A critical look at the influence of technology on child behavior with an alternative way of responding other than evaluation and drugging”.

  1. Attachment

The salient underlying causal factor for child mental illness lies in the quality of attachment between primary parent/caregiver and child. Consistent nurturing and love from caregivers combined with structure, routines and rules, creates predictability and security and helps children learn to self-regulate their emotions. The relationship between parents and how those parents treat and raise their children, contributes to the formation of each child’s own sense of self. Early relationships are a ‘social template’ which children use as a map for all future relationships. Self-regulation and social ability are two important components for eventual success as an adult. Primary attachment between parent and child can be malformed or disrupted through neglect, abuse or trauma. Early onset, intense, or prolonged neglect, abuse or trauma by a parent can create a world for children which may include chaos and unpredictability.  Unstable and violent environments can result in children feeling insecure, lonely, depressed, angry or anxious. Children who struggle with these feelings often exhibit a variety of problematic behaviors which may be mistakenly diagnosed as mental illness. For more information on attachment watch the 5 min. video “The role of attachment in infancy on later mental and physical health outcomes”.

  1. Addiction

As parents and educators become more and more addicted to screen media and devices, children are increasingly being neglected. In the absence of an attentive parent, children are forming unhealthy attachments and addictions to screens which again, can present as problematic behaviours and/or mental illness. Never before in the history of humankind, have we witnessed children with addictions. It is imperative that prior to any mental illness diagnosis or prescription of psychotropic medications, health and education professionals must perform a screen use inventory to determine screen media content and duration of use.

  1. Sense of Purpose

Humans are ‘pack animals’ and consequently don’t survive outside the ‘family pack’. Children flourish when they think they are integral members of their family pack and have a sense of duty or purpose. Consider a farming family 100 years ago where each child had multiple, scheduled chores which if they failed to complete in a timely manner, might result in death. This sense of purpose and routine are integral traits toward building self-worth and core values needed to become a successful worker in the future. Purpose and values are modelled by parents, but also achieved through scheduled chores. As we move toward this child mental health crisis, keeping in mind that we need to help children identify and engage in productive activities (chores, jobs) as mental health protective measures. Children who have a sense of purpose and self-worth are much less likely to engage in problematic behaviours.

Despite vast research supporting a variety of successful treatments for mental illness, many parents report that they were told by their medical professional that there is no “cure” for their child’s mental illness, and that their child will need to take psychotropic medication “for life”. While some parent report relief that finally their child has been given a diagnosis, there is a futility in being told there is nothing they can do to help their child relieve his/her suffering. If indeed primary attachment between parent and child is a salient component of child mental illness, then efforts to improve this important relationship should be front line and supported by all. Putting the cell phone down and picking up or paying attention to children is a great first step toward extinguishing mental illness. While Covid-19 has wreaked devastation on many struggling families, this pandemic has also offered families a starting point toward a different and better tomorrow. The Great Realization by Tom Foolery is a wonderful 4 min. video poem offering a new perspective of “wit and wonder”.

No one factor can be said to be the sole cause of mental illness; rather, mental health disorders result from a complex set of forces that act upon each person as an individual. Finding the various elements that contributed to the onset of an illness requires a team effort between the child, parents and health and education professionals. Identifying all factors, if possible, provides the best road map for the healing process.

Cris Rowan is a biologist, occupational therapist, international speaker and author of “Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children”. For additional information please visit her website at or blog at Cris can be reached at

Screen Tips for Tots – Early overuse of screen technology can cause permanent damage in toddlers

Part one in the Screen Tips series

Screen Tips for Tots is the first of a research referenced series on the impact of screen technologies on child body and brain development. Written by Cris Rowan, pediatric occupational therapist, biologist, international speaker and author of the book “Virtual Child”, Screen Tips will provide parents, educators and clinicians with research evidence which supports regulated and graduated use of screen technologies with children. Foundations for optimizing body and brain development across the age span from 0-18 years are discussed to help readers best understand the impact of screen technologies at different stages in development, and a variety of home, school and community initiatives are proposed to create sustainable futures for all children. The first article in Screen Tips series called Screen Tips for Tots focuses on the 0-3 years age group and is directed toward parents, daycare and preschool educators, and early intervention clinicians.

The majority of mammalian species gestation takes place primarily in the womb, with the ‘infant’ spending very little ‘training’ time with its parents after birth prior to entering the world to fiend for itself. Not so for humans. After 9 months inside their mother, humans get an additional 18 years of parenting to prepare them for adulthood. During this long period, infants become toddlers, toddlers grow into children, followed by tweens, teens, and finally emerge competent and confident to enter the world as independent beings. The level of self-sufficiency, well being and resilience achieved during these formative years is impacted to some degree by genetic make-up, but more so by the environment in which the child was raised. Enriched environments with stable, predictable and loving parents rich with essential developmental components including freedom to move, intentional touch, human connection and exposure to nature create a child who can grow and succeed (see Building Foundations graphic below). Impoverished, screen-centric environments with unpredictable and disconnected parents, create a much different child, a child who will struggle with meeting developmental milestones feeling insecure, anxious, and depressed. Clearly, the ways in which we are raising and educating children with screen technologies are not sustainable (see Virtual Futures graphic below). Understanding child body and brain development at different stages is essential to comprehend the profound impact of sedentary, isolated, overstimulated and neglected environment caused by screen overuse.

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Brain Development

When an infant is finally born at 9 months gestation, they have already formed their full complement of neurons visualized as interconnecting ‘roads’ which traverse to every region of the brain. From birth to death, two neurodevelopmental processes take place based on the environment surrounding the child; pruning and proliferation. Neuronal pruning is a ‘brain efficiency’ process where the neuronal tracks which are used are preserved, and the tracks that aren’t used are cut or pruned, making the brain more efficient. The adage “Use it or loose it” rings true in brain development theory which is accelerated in young children tapering off in adulthood. Neuronal proliferation is a ‘brain connectivity’ process where the neurons grow synaptic connections between neurons effectively connecting the whole brain in the shortest distances possible. Between the ages of 0 and 2 years, an infant’s brain triples in size with a rapidity of pruning and proliferation which is truly remarkable. If the infant is immersed in an enriched environment of movement, touch, human connection and nature, neuronal pruning and proliferation will ‘wire’ the infant’s brain for optimal growth and future success. If the infant’s world is one of being ignored and restrained while watching screens strapped into bucket seats and strollers, neuronal pruning and proliferation will look much different. Overuse of screens at an early age wires infant brains instead for impulsivity and cognitive deficits, resulting in impaired attachment, attention deficit, poor self-regulation, and global developmental delays.

While brain wiring is somewhat ‘plastic’ throughout human life, neuronal damage caused by early overexposure to screens is permanent and consequently, cannot be reversed.

Body Development

Toddlers require critical factors be met during critical time periods to achieve developmental milestones needed to for optimal growth and academic success. Four critical factors for the developing child are movement, touch, human connection and nature.

  • Movement

While most people are familiar with the cardiovascular benefits of movement regarding fitness, obesity and diabetes prevention, few think of movement and its impact on attention and learning. Movement activates two sensory systems which enable eventual coordination and literacy: proprioceptive and vestibular. The proprioceptive system located in the joints and muscles is activated by heavy work or resistance type stimulation such as pushing, pulling, lifting, or carrying. Examples of proprioceptive rich activities are crawling, pulling to a stand, climbing up onto structures, or dragging heavy toys. Parents and educators who restrain toddlers by handing them a device limit proprioceptive development thus impacting foundations for eventual gross and fine motor proficiency needed for printing, reading and sports. The vestibular system (often referenced as the ‘inner ear’) located in the brain is activated by off-centre movement such as spinning, linear rocking, jumping, and swaying side to side. Examples of vestibular rich activities are rocking while holding toddler, bouncing on lap, careful tossing in the air, merry-go-rounds, swings and slides. Parents and educators who fail to allow unrestricted movement limit vestibular development thus impacting foundations for eventual motor coordination proficiency needed for printing, reading, and sports. Safety initiatives while essential should never replace the need for unrestricted movement.

When you hand a toddler a device, they sit; when you take it away, they get up and move. Children are designed to move, not sit.

  • Touch

Tactile stimulation is a biological necessity without which, children die. Essential for activating the parasympathetic system to reduce adrenalin and cortisol, when we touch other humans, we enact a soothing mechanism resulting in a secure and calm toddler. Touch is a form of communication emanating empathy and concern and lets children know how much we care about them. Cuddling and rocking infants and toddlers to sleep or during feeding has long-term benefits of sustained sleep, less colic, and less crying while awake. Many cultures carry their infants and toddlers wrapped on their bodies allowing constant touch and human connection. Parents and educators who don’t carry infants and toddlers, instead relying on soothing devices such as tablets and TV’s, vibrational or rocking baskets, jumping harnesses, or strollers, are depriving their children of life sustaining touch resulting in long-term insecurity and anxiety.

While soothing devices provide ‘short-term gain’ they will result in ‘long-term pain’ as the child is not getting what they need, caregiver touch.

  • Connection

When an infant is born into their family their “job” is to form an attachment with their primary parent, as this attachment will provide them with essential elements to survive. The baby learns quite quickly a variety of gestures to cue the parent to their needs, primarily crying, but also smiling, imitating, and responding to parent’s facial cues. How easily a baby settles into a sleep and feeding routine is reflective of how relaxed they are with their parental attachment. A baby who has all their needs met in a loving and reciprocal relationship early on in the ‘attachment dance’, doesn’t need to work as hard or worry as much about whether or not their needs will continue to be met. A baby who is repeatedly signalling their needs to the parent but the parent either neglects them or is unpredictable in their attentions, learns they need to work harder to get their survival needs met e.g. crying louder and longer, or alternatively, withdrawal. Every time a parent or caregiver picks up their cell phone or watches TV in the presence of an infant or toddler who is expressing themselves (smiling, crying), the child feels rejected, unseen, unheard. Rejection is a profoundly disturbing feeling which creates an impenetrable wall between parent and child completely derailing attachment formation and creating the foundations for a lifetime of misery and mental illness.

Biologically speaking, humans are ‘pack animals’ who don’t survive well when isolated from their pack. Put down your phone and pick up your kid.

  • Nature

When we recall our fondest most memorable experiences, we were often playing outside. Nature is rich in sensory stimulation, whether it be the gentle touch of wind on our face or grass under our feet, beautiful images of trees and flowers, or sounds of running water or waves. Being in Mother Nature activates the parasympathetic nervous system (as does touch) to lower adrenalin and cortisol and elicit peaceful calming and relaxation. Today’s children spend 95% of their time indoors with “fear regarding safety” cited by parents and caregivers as most frequent excuse for not taking children outside to play. While an infant or toddler would much prefer looking out a window than a screen, parents routinely give them the later. I was recently in a home with a young infant which contained a large screen and small window which looked out over a beautiful back yard and suggested moving the big screen to another room and enlarging the window. I envisioned the infant (now toddler) learning to stand by pulling herself up on a window ledge (proprioception) only to discover natures most wonderful attributes right in front of her eyes. Hours and hours of developmentally rich life enhancing entertainment would be available to her just by looking out the window instead of growing up in front of a screen. If we can manage to preserve Mother Nature and make sure children get outside more to enjoy her, nature will serve to be the healer, the ‘counter effect’ to damage caused by sedentary overstimulation from screens.

What we don’t value we can’t protect, and what we can’t protect we will loose. Take your children outside (or at least, give them a room with a view)!

Technology Use Guidelines for Children and Youth

The following Technology Use Guidelines for children and youth were developed by Cris Rowan pediatric occupational therapist and author of Virtual Child, Dr. Andrew Doan neuroscientist and author of Hooked on Games and Dr. Hilarie Cash, Director of reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program and author of Video Games and Your Kids, with contribution from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society in an effort to ensure sustainable futures for all children.

Cris Rowan is a pediatric occupational therapist, biologist, international speaker and author of “Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children”. Cris is CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc., collates research for the monthly Zone’in Child Development Series Newsletter, and writes a feature article for her blog Moving to Learn

Where Do the Children Play? What happens when our kid’s only childhood memory is a screen?

One of our jobs as parents is to create childhood memories that will sustain them through their lifetime; memories that will be told around the camp fire, at weddings, and even at funerals. Memories so beautiful and heart felt they make us smile, laugh, and cry. Lyrics from a Cat Stevens song illustrate real concerns regarding preserving childhood and play spaces “We’ve come a long way, we’re changing day to day, but tell me where do the children play?” In the rush to digitalize childhood, society seems to have forgotten critical essential components needed to create a sustainable child. Play spaces where children can run, yell, and be free to imagine other worlds are rapidly deteriorating without so much as a backward glance. Tall swings, long slides and merry-go-rounds were standard equipment in playgrounds of the past, and Toys “R” Us was a birthday and Christmas must. Children use to “play out” until dark and get into adventurous mischief because parents weren’t monitoring their every move. Students either biked or walked to school and participated in a vast diversity of after school sports and club activities. Recesses were long and PE teachers ensured they were packed with loads of gym, playground and game-type activities. Children seemed happy…only a 20 years ago, they seemed secure, well adjusted, and on their way to becoming independent adults with bright futures, and – happy memories to sustain them through the tough times. Fast forward to today. Toys “R” Us went belly up after 70 years of providing kids with thrilling toys. Playgrounds are infantile and dilapidated with licencing forced removal of everything fun or challenging. Streets and parks are quiet and deserted. As epidemic levels of obesity climb, kids are dropped off at school where No Child Left Behind initiatives have eliminated PE and decimated recess. When students are allowed recess, they spend their time on mandated BYOD screens…sedentary, inside, alone, and sad. With the onset of video games and social media has come pervasive and escalating child behavior management issues including aggression, depression, anxiety and suicide. As outdoor rough and tumble imaginative play rapidly becomes a thing of the past, society might be wise to consider the following nature and movement-based initiatives to enhance child development, behavior and learning.

While parents have known for decades that nature offers serious benefits to our physical and mental health, the move from active outdoor play to passive and sedentary indoor screen watching has been pervasive and rapid. Citing ‘fear’ as a primary motivator, parents universally agree that outside is “not safe” and consequently keep their children inside. What is odd is the general acceptance by parents that online sites are ‘safe’ even with the alarming rise in online pedophile presence. Studies abound showing that nature’s ‘green space’ is the most attention restorative agent available to teacher to enhance learning, yet many students are kept inside during recess to finish work or as a disciplinary measure, or even worse, allowed to stay inside the classroom and gaze absently at their phones or watch movies. The downside of keeping kids sedentary, isolated and indoors is taking a heavy toll on our children. UBC’s Healthy Early Intervention Partnership study of 47,000 preschool children in 2016 showed 1 in 3 children enter school developmentally delayed, 1 in 3 are obese or overweight (Stats Canada), and 1 in 7 children and youth have a diagnosed mental illness (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2016). While our children have never been sicker than they are today, we can reverse this destructive trend through improved engagement in outdoor play by focusing on the following evidence based school, home and community initiatives.

  1. Allow 3-4 recess breaks/day for research proven improved attention and learning, better grades, decreased need for movement ‘body breaks’ in classroom, decreased problematic behaviors and improved self-regulation. CBC interview (7:30 min) with principal Paul McKay and classroom teacher talk about every hour have a 15 min. break with improved attendance (up 5%), improved grades, happier students, less lethargy and improved classroom participation. Suggest no more than one hour in classroom followed by 15 min. gym or playground break.
  1. Enhance existing playgrounds with age appropriate and challenging equipment. All playground equipment must be anchored in cement with 6-8” of absorbent surfacing to ensure safety (Canadian Standards Association) with coverage of structures for sun, rain, and snow protection. Think in terms of the following age groups each needing devices relevant to their age, inclusively arranged to accommodate people across the life span:
  1. 0-5 years: infant/toddlers swings, saucer swing for social, slides, extensive trike path, covered sand box, water table, climbing structures.
  2. 6-12 years: merry-go-round, high swings/slide, cargo net structure (Lunar Blast), climbing wall outside building,
  3. 13-18 years: obstacle course equipment,
  4. Teachers and parents: cardio stepper, large covered fire pit with surround seating.
  5. Elders: benches, picnic tables, covered areas.
  1. Start each day outside with school ‘tough mudder’ run or inside in gym with obstacle course and loud music; do one class per day outside.
  1. Consideration given to allowing alternate forms of creative physical play through allowing students to build forts or use a variety of construction type materials and ‘loose parts’ (anything that’s not bolted down).
  1. Reduce rules and increase risk and challenge while also maintaining a safe and congenial play environment. Making playgrounds more dangerous with less parent/teacher intervention and more loose parts promotes creativity and imagination, while also improving independence and self motivation. Consider creation of a rough and tumble play zone for those kids who need more intense play opportunities. No Rules Schools actually improve behavior and enhance learning!
  1. Establish sensory-motor room in schools with inclusion of the following areas: hangout space (couch, carpet, beanbag chairs), chillout space (quiet space behind bookcase with beanbag chair), and workout space (TRX Strapping, slam balls, free weights, exercise bike/rowing machine/elliptical). EA’s could be assigned to this room 2-3 times per day at designated intervals and students sent there to have their sensory and motor needs met (as opposed to being sent to principal’s office).

This article was written by pediatric occupational therapist, biologist, international speaker, and author Cris Rowan who is passionate about changing the ways in which children use technology. Cris’s website, blog, and book can be referenced for additional information. Cris can be reached at