In an age when many believe our society has become too overprotective, it’s one phenomenon that’s sparked a lot of outrage. Schools outlawing tag—really? A game that’s basically ingrained in our biology? A game that’s universally loved and can be played by just about anyone? If our kids can’t play tag, what can they play?
Most schools that have banned tag say it’s simply a matter of safety. They see too many kids nowadays being hurt from tag. To your average American, it’s a lame excuse. Sure, a kid might skin their knee every now and then playing tag, but is that really worth banning a game that has countless benefits for all?
The real problem actually goes much deeper than schools being overcautious. The truth is that modern kids are lacking some fundamental skills needed to safely play tag. In her book Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children, pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom outlines why tag today doesn’t resemble the game most parents recall from their own childhood.
“What was once considered a simple and honest game of good fun has become a nightmare on the playground. Children are starting to hit with such force that they often end up whacking their opponent across the back with a monstrous slap,” Hanscom writes. “One teacher stated, ‘We have to make up extra rules for them because they have trouble knowing how to use appropriate touch with one another.'”
Being struck with such force while running at high speeds is a recipe for nasty falls and not-so-minor bumps and bruises. It often leads to retaliation and fighting, which is another justification schools have offered for banning tag, and many schools have instilled a “two-finger touch” policy for tag in hopes of combatting the issue. This is a game that human children have likely been playing in one form or another for tens of thousands of years. It’s a game even many young animals will naturally engage in. At its core, tag is about the thrill of chasing or being chased, but in an environment that’s ultimately safe.
“The thrill of tag is biological and evolutionary and simulates a predator-prey dynamic, with the person being chased is prey,” psychologist Rachel Tomlinson told Fatherly. “You can also see this behavior in many animals, with young animals in the species playing tag to practice this skill of retreating from a predator to keep safe.” Now, many kids have lost the ability to play tag by hurting one another far too often and ruining the safety of the activity, which has always been a key component of the game. Why?
It’s important to know that in the vast majority of cases, the kids aren’t trying to hurt one another. Rather, modern kids often lack the innate ability to judge how much pressure to apply during games that require human contact such as tag, largely due to a underdeveloped proprioceptive sense. “As you know, the traditional recess game tag involves one or more players chasing other players in an attempt to ‘tag’ or touch them. However, the force with which students ‘tag’ varies greatly,” the principal of a New Hampshire elementary school that banned tag explained in a statement.
“We’re seeing this as an issue that kids are more aggressive when they’re playing tag. They’re banning tag, (but) they’re not understanding the underlining reason for that,” Hanscom told STACK. “With tag, in particular, the issue is that kids aren’t getting what we call ‘Heavy Work.’ They’re not getting a lot of resistance work where they’re digging in the dirt for hours, climbing trees, (stuff) where they’re getting a lot of pressure to the joints and muscles and developing the senses in the joints and muscles themselves—that proprioceptive sense.”
Heavy work is any type of activity that offers significant push or pull against the body. Think of it like life’s natural form of resistance training. Unrestricted outdoor play offers endless opportunities for heavy work —play-wrestling with other kids, picking up big rocks, lifting heavy branches, climbing trees, digging, pulling a wagon, etc. Hanscom says this type of activity creates “new gravitational loads and adaptations that strengthen bones and muscular tissue over time, offering children increased awareness of their muscle’s capabilities and of their positioning for better body awareness.”
Problem is, kids of this generation play outdoors a fraction as much as their parents and grandparents did. According to the Child Mind Institute, American kids now spend an average of just 4-7 minutes per day on unstructured outdoor play. Meanwhile, Hanscom recommends at least three hours of daily outdoor free play. In addition to building well-developed, capable bodies, this type of play also helps kids learn how to play vigorously yet kindly with one another. What are kids doing instead? Mostly engaging with electronics. A 2017 Common Sense Media report found American kids ages five to eight spend an average of nearly three hours a day on digital screens, while a 2015 Common Sense Media report found American kids ages eight to 12 spend nearly double that, even after excluding time spent on screens at school or for homework.
“If they’re on electronics all the time, they’re just pushing buttons and not getting the resistance they need. So that sense is underdeveloped in a lot of children,” Hanscom explains. “It helps you know where your body limbs are in relation to each other, but it also helps you know how much force to use when playing games like tag or holding a baby chick without squeezing too hard or writing with a pencil without breaking the lead.”
Even kids who participate in organized sports can have an underdeveloped proprioceptive sense if they’re not getting enough outdoor free play. For example, a child may play soccer, but how many opportunities does youth soccer offer for heavy work of the upper body? An underdeveloped proprioceptive sense is just one of the many issues that relates to the drastic decline in free play among America’s kids.
Is the way our schools are headed, with children being asked to spend increasingly long periods of time seated at a desk while recess and P.E. classes are being reduced or eliminated all together, a part of the problem? No doubt. But what they’re doing outside of school is also massively important, and when outdoor free play is replaced by screen time and a never-ending list of organized activities, kids physical, mental and emotional development suffers. So much so, that many of them don’t even know how to play tag.
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