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Run wild, run free

Researchers say kids need more outdoor play

run wild, run free
Xavier Lavergne and Isabella Baldock have fun walking on a log at a local park.
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Outdoor activities

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2015

Now that the shorter and cooler days of fall are upon us, we may be tempted to start keeping our children - especially those under the age of 12 - indoors where they can be safe and warm.

It's a temptation best resisted, particularly in light of mounting evidence that suggests keeping children inside can be damaging to their long-term health.

Numerous studies have shown that our kids are not active enough. For example, the Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, released by ParticipACTION earlier this year, found that only 14 per cent of children between the ages of five and 11 are getting the 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous (heart-pumping) activity that kids need each day to maintain their health and well-being.

This is a problem because kids who are less active have a higher risk of developing chronic conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart problems and becoming overweight. They also tend to be more prone to stress and anxiety-related issues and do less well socially and academically at school.

So what accounts for the lack of overall activity among our kids?

The researchers responsible for compiling the report card say it has much to do with the fact that kids today don't get the chance to play outside as much as they did 30 or 40 years ago. And, they say, that's largely because parents have become over-protective of their kids.

"We may be so focused on trying to intervene in our children's lifestyles to make sure they're healthy, safe and happy, that we are having the opposite effect," the researchers say in a preamble to the report card. "We call this the protection paradox. We over-protect kids to keep them safe, but keeping them close and keeping them indoors may set them up to be less resilient and more likely to develop chronic diseases in the long run."

This may be particularly true of kids under 12, who have not yet gained the independence that comes with the teenage years.   

Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem: Let kids play outside more often.

Specifically, the researchers say kids need to engage more in self-directed, unstructured play in natural settings. Such activities could include climbing a tree or playing a game of tag or hide and seek.

Now, the emphasis on unstructured play in natural settings should not be taken to suggest that kids should be discouraged from playing games like baseball or soccer. A soccer game with friends will help any child achieve his or her goal of getting 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a day. Rather, the researchers are simply making the point that other forms of play can be just as valuable in making sure kids get the daily dose of activity they need to maintain their overall health and well-being.

That makes a lot of sense. After all, not all kids want to play sports. But most kids, particularly those under 12, are curious and creative and will climb a rock, balance on wood logs, splash in puddles, or get dirty in the mud. Unorganized play in nature provides a chance for children and youth to direct their own activities.

And the health benefits are significant. Consider these facts:

  • When physical education classes are held outside, students take 35 per cent more steps.
  • Kids who play outside after school get 20 minutes more heart-pumping physical activity each day than those who do not. Not only do kids who play outside get more physical activity, they have higher fitness levels and participate in less sedentary behaviour. 
  • Children in Grades 5 and 6 who have opportunities to explore and play unsupervised get 20 per cent more heart-pumping physical activity than those who are always supervised.
  • Active movement of any kind contributes to developing other skills such as balance, confidence, and co-ordination. These skills contribute to being able to participate in life-long physical activity.
  • Research shows that children are less likely to engage in bullying when they play in natural environments.

Parents know that a little bit of homework can help boost their child's academic performance at school. But a little bit of outside play can be just as important in helping their child make the grade when it comes to being physically active.

So, as the weather turns cooler, why not pull out some warmer clothing and let your child go play outside?

Sarah Prowse is physical activity promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: March / April 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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