Kids need risky outdoor play—here's why

The new ParticipACTION Report Card gives Canadian kids a failing grade for physical activity.

Gillian and Isaac on the same monkey bars that Jennifer played on as a child. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski
Gillian and Isaac on the same monkey bars that Jennifer played on as a child. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

My five-year-old daughter Gillian came home from school this week and proudly told me that she not only mastered the monkey bars, but can skip every third bar, a skill she’d doggedly practiced all spring. Even more amazing to me is she literally accomplished this single-handedly—two weeks ago, she broke her arm while perfecting her monkey bar technique at home. Her bright purple fiberglass cast has not slowed her down one bit. If anything, she’s more nimble and adaptive… and just as fearless as ever.

I wanted to tell her that swinging on the monkey bars with a busted arm is a bad idea, but I opted for a high-five instead, her small hands full of dirty calluses slapping my equally callused hands. Because, as much as she is naturally brave, her fearlessness is something I nurture. Admittedly, it’s also not always easy to turn a blind eye to Gillian’s risky play. I wince and get goosebumps the faster she swings or the higher she climbs, but rather than nagging her to stop, I join in and find that the more breathtaking the height, the more thrilling the fun. I join in because I want my children to know that risky play is OK.

Unfortunately, our family’s monkey bar antics aren’t statistically the norm. ParticipACTION’s new Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth gave Canadian children a D- for overall physical activity. Using available data on physical activity from the past 12 months, the report assigned letter grades and provided actionable recommendations to 11 indicators, including Family and Peers, School, Active Transportation and Active Play.

New to the 2015 report card is a position statement on active outdoor play, with ParticipACTION recommending that children have more opportunities for self-directed play outdoors at school, in daycare and, of course, in nature.

The report also revealed that when kids play outside and are given the chance to take more risks, they are more active overall. Research found:

  • When physical education classes are held outdoors, students take 35 percent more steps.
  • Kids ages nine to 17 who play outside after school get 20 extra minutes of physical activity per day.
  • Grades five and six students who are allowed to explore unsupervised get 20 percent more physical activity than those who are always supervised.

However, in recent years risky outdoor play has been linked with danger, despite evidence that kids today are safer than ever. Parents report being fearful of their children being abducted or injured, when the reality is that a Canadian child being kidnapped by strangers is very rare. And as for injuries—scraped knees and broken bones used to be a childhood rite of passage, so why aren’t they anymore? What changed so much in the past generation that made us afraid of our kids getting hurt now?

I wish there was a simple solution to what I consider a physical activity crisis for Canadian children. Our failing grades for the past few years haven’t been enough to motivate parents to get their kids off the couch, and I’m hoping it doesn’t take serious health issues before they’re scared into action. After all, diabetes and heart disease is a much more complicated fix than a bandage or a cast.

On second thought, there is a simple solution. It’s called the outdoors, and it’s right there waiting for you.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big-city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

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