Out­door play best for kids

The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion - — Mar­i­ana Brus­soni is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of pe­di­atrics and pop­u­la­tion and public health at UBC. This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in The Con­ver­sa­tion.

What if there was a simple, in­ex­pen­sive and fun way to ad­dress some of the ma­jor chal­lenges fac­ing hu­man­ity to­day. What if it could help im­prove chil­dren’s health, de­vel­op­ment and well-be­ing? Imag­ine a solution that could stem the cur­rent epi­demics of obe­sity, anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion af­fect­ing chil­dren and youth to­day. Imag­ine that this solution could also pro­mote brain health, creativ­ity and aca­demic achievemen­t and pre­pare our chil­dren for the rapidly-chang­ing work force.

Along the way it could re­duce in­ci­dence of al­ler­gies, asthma and other im­mu­nity chal­lenges and im­prove eye health. It could fos­ter a cul­ture of en­vi­ron­men­tal stewardshi­p and sus­tain­abil­ity and help build the health of cities – pro­mot­ing neigh­bourli­ness and feel­ings of com­mu­nity con­nec­tion.

Imag­ine that this in­ter­ven­tion could also help coun­tries meet their tar­gets for many of the United Na­tions Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals, such as the goals of Good Health and Well-be­ing, In­clu­sive and Eq­ui­table Quality Ed­u­ca­tion, De­cent Work and Eco­nomic Growth and Cli­mate Ac­tion.

This isn’t an ex­pen­sive in­ter­ven­tion, or one that par­ents have to force their chil­dren to do – like home­work or eat­ing their veg­eta­bles.

Rather than dread­ing it, chil­dren re­port be­ing at their hap­pi­est when doing it and they seek ways to keep at it for as long as pos­si­ble.

What is this fix-all simple solution? Playing out­side.

Many of us have fond memories of child­hoods spent out­side, hang­ing out with friends in our neigh­bour­hoods, parks and wild places, mak­ing up the rules as we went along, with min­i­mal (if any) adult su­per­vi­sion.

We need only re­flect on our own play memories to re­al­ize how valu­able these experience­s can be and how they can shape our lifelong health and de­vel­op­ment. The re­search is now catch­ing up to our in­tu­itions, rec­og­niz­ing the vast and di­verse ben­e­fits of out­door play.

Playing out­side is not the same as playing in­side. There are unique ben­e­fits of be­ing in the out­doors, par­tic­u­larly in na­ture, that don’t come as read­ily in­doors. When chil­dren are al­lowed to play the way they want to play in stim­u­lat­ing en­vi­ron­ments, they move more, sit less and play longer.

They get their hands in the dirt and are ex­posed to mi­crobes that help them build their im­mu­nity. They make their own goals and fig­ure out the steps to at­tain those goals, help­ing them build ex­ec­u­tive func­tion skills. They learn, build re­silience and de­velop their so­cial skills, learn how to man­age risks and keep them­selves safe. Their eyes get the exercise they need to help com­bat short-sight­ed­ness.

We are re­dis­cov­er­ing the magic of out­door play. Gov­ern­ments see it as a way of getting kids ac­tive and avert­ing the obe­sity cri­sis.

Schools and early child­hood cen­tres see it as a way of pro­mot­ing aca­demic and so­cioe­mo­tional learn­ing. Cor­po­ra­tions see it as a way of pre­par­ing chil­dren for the jobs of the fu­ture that will fo­cus on creativ­ity, em­pa­thy and con­nec­tion with others. Chil­dren just see it as a way of hav­ing fun and feel­ing free!

There are three key in­gre­di­ents to sup­port­ing out­door play: time, space and free­dom.

Kids need time to be able to play out­side. In schools, that means re­cess poli­cies that get kids out­side every day, find­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to use the out­doors for learn­ing and lim­it­ing home­work. At home, that means lay­ing aside screens and lim­it­ing sched­uled struc­tured ac­tiv­i­ties.

Kids also need high-quality out­door spa­ces to play in. That doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean ex­pen­sive play­ground equip­ment. It means spa­ces where all chil­dren feel wel­come, re­gard­less of abil­i­ties and back­grounds, that they can make their own and that also have loose parts (for ex­am­ple sticks, stones, wa­ter and card­board boxes) they can use and let their imag­i­na­tion shape the play.

In cities, that means be­ing pre­pared for and al­low­ing play to hap­pen ev­ery­where, not just parks and play­grounds. We need to design in­clu­sive and child-friendly cities where kids feel wel­come ev­ery­where and can eas­ily ac­cess na­ture.

Fi­nally, free­dom: the big­gest bar­rier to chil­dren’s abil­ity to play the way they want to play is adults. We need to let go of our ex­ces­sive fears of in­juries and kid­nap­ping and re­al­ize that the ben­e­fits of kids getting out to play far out­weigh the risks. My lab de­vel­oped a risk re­fram­ing tool for par­ents and care­givers to help them on this jour­ney.

Help­ing sup­port chil­dren’s out­door play can be as simple as open­ing the front door. It doesn’t have to be com­pli­cated or ex­pen­sive. If we all do our bit, we can help bring back this cru­cial ac­tiv­ity that should be part of all chil­dren’s daily lives, re­gard­less of age, cul­tural back­ground, gen­der or abil­ity.

There are lots of tools to help you get started, whether you’re a parent, care­giver, ed­u­ca­tor, city plan­ner or a neigh­bour.

I would en­cour­age you to con­sider one simple and at­tain­able thing you are go­ing to do to­day to help get the child or chil­dren in your life get out to play.

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