Are kids too scared to play outdoors?

Too scared to play? A new study suggests that more families perceive the outdoors as dangerous, leading to decreased physical activity.

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Where are the other kids? Isaac and Gillian are the only children at the park. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

The park we’ve stopped to play at is deserted, save for a county safety inspector doing a routine check on the swings and play structure. He twists the swings in his hands, checking the bolts on the seat and tugging the chain. Satisfied, he writes something on his clipboard and moves on to the plastic slide.

“This is a pretty nice park, but where are all the kids?” my son Isaac asks.

Indeed, the park is lovely and lush, even on this overcast day. It’s rained all morning and, despite the fact that the sun is fighting to come through the clouds, not a single child is playing on the playground or on the wide green space.

“I guess we get it all to ourselves,” he shrugs, making a beeline to the teeter-totter. Gillian tosses off her rubber boots and runs after him, barefoot as usual. They laugh hysterically while bouncing each other high in the air, falling off more often than they stay on, which I think is the goal of their game.

By this time, the county safety inspector has finished checking the equipment, and it’s started to rain. I give my kids the option of staying and playing for a few more minutes or heading back to the car to warm up. They choose to stay.

“But it would be more fun if there were other kids here,” Gillian says.

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Special permits to build tree houses. Banning hard balls from school grounds. Safety notices on play structures. These are all barriers for getting kids active outdoors, leading parents and children alike to believe that outdoor play is dangerous says Ian Janssen, a professor of kinesiology and public health at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. This perception, he says, is largely unfounded.

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Too many rules? Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

“It’s just creating more challenges and barriers when we have these types of rules,” Janssen said in an interview with the Toronto Star. “Think of what you’re telling children about play.”

Janssen spoke at last month’s Global Summit on the Physical Activity of Children meeting in Toronto, sharing the findings of a research study out of Queen’s University he was involved in. In the study, 26,000 Canadian children ages 11 to 15 were asked about their physical-activity levels, which were then measured alongside local crime rates and how safe they felt at home. Results showed that if a child perceived danger, they were less active outdoors—even if the crime rates didn’t match the perception.

Read more: Toronto school cancels camping trip: Safety concerns?>

That combination—perceived crime danger and arbitrary playground rules—can contribute to obesity because kids are not outside engaging in unstructured active play.

I see Janssen’s findings reflected in my own small community. Crime is low, as are the number of overweight children. In a town where we all look out for each other’s children, stranger danger is non-existent and the public rec spaces are filled with kids riding bikes, playing tennis and climbing up slides. Sometimes impromptu games of dodgeball break out and the recommended ages on the play structures are usually ignored.

I wish that all playgrounds were like ours, and it makes me sad to know that they are not.

Read more: 50 essential summer activities>

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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