The Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play.

Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings—at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.

PREAMBLE

We conducted two systematic reviews to examine the best available scientific evidence on the net effect (i.e., balance of benefits vs. harms) of outdoor and risky active play. Other research and reviews were also consulted. The Position Statement applies to girls and boys (aged 3-12 years) regardless of ethnicity, race, or family socioeconomic status. Children who have a disability or a medical condition should also enjoy active outdoor play in compliance with guidance from a health professional.

CONTEXT

In an era of schoolyard ball bans and debates about safe tobogganing, have we as a society lost the appropriate balance between keeping children healthy and active and protecting them from serious harm? If we make too many rules about what they can and can’t do, will we hinder their natural ability to develop and learn? If we make injury prevention the ultimate goal of outdoor play spaces, will they be any fun? Are children safer sitting on the couch instead of playing actively outside? We need to recognize the difference between danger and risk. And we need to value long-term health and fun as much as we value safety.

Risk is often seen as a bad word— by parents, neighbours, care providers, insurance providers, schools and municipalities. But in play, risk doesn’t mean courting danger—like skating on a half-frozen lake or sending a preschooler to the park alone. It means the types of play children see as thrilling and exciting, where the possibility of physical injury may exist, but they can recognize and evaluate challenges according to their own ability.1,2 It means giving children the freedom to decide how high to climb, to explore the woods, get dirty, play hide ’n seek, wander in their neighbourhoods, balance, tumble and rough-house, especially outdoors, so they can be active, build confidence, autonomy and resilience, develop skills, solve problems and learn their own limits. It’s letting kids be kids— healthier, more active kids.

EVIDENCE

  • When children are outside they move more, sit less and play longer3-12 — behaviours associated with improved cholesterol levels, blood pressure, body composition, bone density, cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal fitness and aspects of mental, social and environmental health.13-22
  • Outdoor play is safer than you think!
    • The odds of total stranger abduction are about 1 in 14 million based on RCMP reports.23 Being with friends outdoors may further reduce this number.
    • Broken bones and head injuries unfortunately do happen, but major trauma is uncommon. Most injuries associated with outdoor play are minor.24-31
    • Canadian children are eight times more likely to die as a passenger in a motor vehicle than from being hit by a vehicle when outside on foot or on a bike.32-34
  • There are consequences to keeping kids indoors—is it really safer?
    • When children spend more time in front of screens they are more likely to be exposed to cyber-predators and violence, and eat unhealthy snacks.35-39
    • Air quality indoors is often worse than outdoors, increasing exposure to common allergens (e.g., dust, mould, pet dander), infectious diseases, and potentially leading to chronic conditions.40-43
    • In the long-term, sedentary behaviour and inactivity elevate odds of developing chronic diseases, including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some forms of cancer and mental health problems.44-53
  • Hyper-parenting limits physical activity and can harm mental health.54-57
  • When children are closely supervised outside, they are less active.4,58-68
  • Children are more curious about, and interested in, natural spaces than pre- fabricated play structures.69-79 Children who engage in active outdoor play in natural environments demonstrate resilience, self-regulation and develop skills for dealing with stress later in life.80-98
  • Outdoor play that occurs in minimally structured, free and accessible environments facilitates socialization with peers, the community and the environment, reduces feelings of isolation, builds inter-personal skills and facilitates healthy development.4,59,70,76,83,99-103

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Parents: Encourage your children to engage more fully with their outdoor environments in a variety of weather conditions. When children are supported to take risks, they have more fun and learn how to assess and manage risk in all areas of their lives.2,82,104
  • Educators and Caregivers: Regularly embrace the outdoors for learning, socialization and physical activity opportunities, in various weather conditions—including rain and snow. Risky active play is an important part of childhood and should not be eliminated from the school yard or childcare centre.
  • Health Professionals: Be influential! Promote every child’s connection with nature and the outdoors—identify outdoor play resources and partner with municipalities, parks, nature-related organizations, parent groups and children to support this process.
  • Injury Prevention Professionals: Find a balanced approach to health promotion and protection that considers the long-term dangers of a sedentary lifestyle along with the acute potential for injury.
  • School and Child Care Administrators: Choose natural elements over pre-fabricated playgrounds and paved areas—and encourage children to play in, and help design, these environments.
  • Media: Provide balanced reporting—sensationalizing stories about predators and danger elevates fear; cover success stories related to outdoor and risky active play.
  • Attorneys General: Establish reasonable liability limits for municipal governments— this means Joint and Several Liability Reform.
  • Provincial and Municipal Governments: Work together to create an environment where Public Entities are protected from frivolous lawsuits over minor injuries related to normal and healthy outdoor risky active play. This protection would no longer restrict Public Entities to using the Canadian Standards Association CAN/CSA Z614 “Children’s Playspaces and Equipment” as a guide for the design of outdoor play spaces and as a requirement for the funding of these spaces. An increased investment in natural play spaces in all neighbourhoods is encouraged.
  • Schools and Municipalities: Examine existing policies and by-laws and reconsider those that pose a barrier to active outdoor play.
  • Federal and Provincial/Territorial Governments: Collaborate across sectors to find ways to improve children’s access to risky active play in nature and the outdoors.
  • Society: Recognize that children are competent and capable. Respect parents’ assessments of their children’s abilities and their decisions to encourage self- directed play in nature and the outdoors. Allow all children to play with and form a lasting relationship with nature on their own terms.

This Position Statement was informed by the best available evidence, interpreted by a group of Canadian experts representing 14 organizations, and reviewed and edited by more than 1,600 stakeholders. Details of the process are published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health [www.mdpi.com/journal/ijerph].

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Funding for the development of the Position Statement was provided by:

The Position Statement was developed and is supported by Professor Susan Herrington, MLA, University of British Columbia; Dr. William Pickett, Queen’s University, and:

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