If there was a simple way to address some of the major challenges facing children today, would we do it? This question was recently posed by Mariana Brussoni, associate professor, Department of Paediatrics, School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia in Canada.
Brussoni also asked the following questions:
What if we could make significant strides in improving children’s mental well-being, physical health, creativity, learning and academic achievement?
Would we be motivated to act if we could reduce the likelihood of infectious disease transmission and improve immunity?
What about if we could foster a culture of environmental stewardship and sustainability, and help build the health of cities for all citizens?
Would acting to meet targets for the Sustainable Development Goals that were set up by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 motivate us?
What about meeting our commitments to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?
This intervention isn’t expensive, nor one that has to be imposed on unwilling children. In fact, rather than dreading it, children report being their happiest when doing it and want to do more of it.
What is this simple solution that can tackle so many challenges? Outdoor play.
The magic of outdoor play
When we think back to our favourite play memory, many of us were outdoors. We might recall a sense of joy and wonder, being able to run and jump and shout without being chastised, meeting up with our friends and having endless time to explore, craft new games and make spaces our own. As research builds on outdoor play, it has become increasingly apparent how critically important these opportunities are for children’s health, development and well-being.
When children play outside in stimulating environments, they move more, sit less and play longer. They get their hands in the dirt, exposing themselves to microbiomes that build their immunity. They invent new activities and games and resolve disputes with friends, helping develop creativity, executive function and social skills.
They take risks, conduct experiments with the world and move their bodies in novel ways, learning to build physical literacy and risk management skills, self-confidence and resilience. Their eyes get the exercise they need to help reduce myopia.
Unfortunately, these benefits are not available to all children. Many countries have seen decreases in outdoor play for successive generations of children. Further, children from lower-income households and living in high density apartments can have disproportionately fewer opportunities. These inequities were made explicit during the COVID-19 pandemic when so many children were isolated from friends and had their outdoor play time restricted.
Creating supportive environments for outdoor play
There are three key ingredients to support outdoor play: time, space and freedom.
Children need daily, dedicated time for play. which has shrunk with increasing focus on schoolwork, more time spent on screens and in structured activities, and heightened fears of abduction or serious injury. Prioritising time for outdoor play requires an understanding of what’s currently available: a combined effort to educate parents, childcare environments, schools and the community on its importance, and hold local policy makers accountable.
In 2014, Wales became the first country to establish a duty requiring local authorities to create conditions supportive of children’s outdoor play. Their toolkits and guidance can provide a useful roadmap for other jurisdictions.
Children need ready access to high quality outdoor spaces, particularly children living in apartments. Urban planning dedicated to cars has exacerbated children’s retreat indoors. This approach fails to recognise the importance of the built environment in shaping children’s lives, as well as the importance of children in shaping cities.
Online news source Arup proposes that the time children spend in outdoor play, their ability to move around their cities independently and the extent of their contact with nature are key indicators for a city’s health – not just for children, but for all citizens.
High quality outdoor spaces don’t necessarily include expensive play equipment; rather, they are spaces where all children feel welcome and have access to loose parts (such as sticks, rocks, water, cardboard boxes) that allow their imagination to shape the play. In cities, this means inclusive, child-friendly design where play can happen anywhere, and there is easy access to nature.
Adults’ fears are the biggest barriers to children’s outdoor play. We need to let go of our unsubstantiated fears of injuries and abduction to recognise that the benefits of outdoor play far outweigh the risks.
At the University of British Columbia, in partnership with British Columbia Children’s Hospital and the British Columbia Research and Prevention Unit, we have developed an interactive tool for parents and educators called OutsidePlay to help reframe our ideas of risk, recognise our fears and develop a plan for change.
What can I do?
We all have a role to play. Supporting our children, helping reduce the profound negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing the vast inequities in children’s outcomes, preparing our future leaders, caring for the health of our cities – all of this requires that children’s right to play underpin all aspects of our societies.
While we vary in our levels of readiness to support outdoor play, the start of our journey does not have to be complicated or expensive. It can be as simple as opening the front door. There are lots of tools available to help you get started regardless of your role – parent, educator, city planner, policy maker. Consider one simple, attainable thing you can do today to help the children in your life get out to play. Our future depends on it.