When I first read the report, I truly expected to hear an uproar from parents. Let our kids just go outside? In nature? But what if they hurt themselves? After all, a parent’s job is to keep our kids safe and protect them from harm. Well, the Report Card (which was developed using findings from the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute (HALO-CHEO), ParticipACTION, and a group of 12 other organizations, and supported by over 1,600 international stakeholders) states that not letting our kids get outside and take risks on their own is actually doing real harm to them in the long run. Surprisingly, the responses I heard from parents were strongly in support of the Report’s statement. It was as though parents were finally given the ‘okay’ to just let their kids be kids.
Here are some of the highlights from the Report:
Beware the Protection Paradox.
Even from when I was a kid (full disclosure: this was a few decades ago although I like to think it was just yesterday), what I remember as exciting or stimulating play has now become what’s called “risky play”. I used to spend hours climbing trees that hung over the edge of a pond with my best friend. We would pack a lunch and the two of us wouldn’t see an adult until it was time to head back to her house for dinner.
As a parent now, I can’t imagine letting a child under the age of 10 do something like that without a grown up at arm’s reach or at least in view. The Report finds, however, that the increase in helicopter parenting over time has resulted in a tendency to overprotect our kids. In trying to keep kids close and safe, they inevitably spend more time indoors and in the long run become less resilient with less opportunities to participate in physical activity which unfortunately increases their likelihood of developing chronic diseases.
We need to recognize the difference between danger and risk.
The word “risk” often has some negative connotations that go along with it. But there are ways to avoid dangerous situations while understanding and taking risks. By letting kids learn about these risks on their own, they will be better able to independently assess adventurous activities in the future. Equipped with the confidence to go outside and decide how they want to play, kids are more likely to put down the screens, step outside and stay active.
Outdoor play is safer than you think!
Numbers don’t lie. The Report shared some interesting figures that help give some perspective to how we identify dangerous activities.
- The odds of a total stranger abduction are about 1 in 14 million based on RCMP reports. 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.
- 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.
On the other hand…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
We need to value long-term health and fun as much as we value safety.
As stated in the Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play, long-term health should be valued as much as safety. The Report found that kids with ready access to unsupervised outdoor play actually have better-developed motor skills, social behaviour, independence and conflict resolution skills.
As the Report states: “Adults are encouraged to consider the possibility that rules and regulations designed to prevent injuries and reduce perceived liability consequences have become excessive, to the extent that they actually limit rather than promote children’s physical activity and health. Adults need to get out of the way and let kids play!”
The fine print disclaimer here would be that of course, as a caring parent, you should use your judgment. Children still need parental guidance when it comes to safety but the real risk to kids is not giving them opportunities to discover for themselves the fun that nature has to offer and to assess and take risks on their own. So get them outside, let them have an adventure, and let our kids be kids!