May 2, 2019 1:44 pm
Updated: May 2, 2019 1:45 pm

What Canadian parents can learn from how kids play around the world

WATCH ABOVE: In Canada, parents spend an average of $400 on toys for their kids, per year. But in other parts of the world it's a fraction of that. A group from the University of Alberta has been studying play around the world and has found all those expensive toys might not be necessary. Kim Smith explains.

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Students from the University of Alberta are travelling to Peru, Cambodia and Thailand this year to work with kids from orphanages, children with disabilities and kids from at-risk youth programs, to bring physical activity and sport to children of all abilities.

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The program, Play Around the World (PAW), has been around for 19 years and sends students on three-month learning placements.

“Play is universal and play looks very similar in all parts of the world,” Mary Ann Rintoul, director of Play Around the World, said.

Over the course of its existence, students and leaders from the program have learned two important lessons that can translate to Canadian families.

Expensive toys not needed

In Canada, parents spend an average of about $400 per year on toys for their kids, according to a 2013 survey from Statista. However, in other parts of the world, the total is a fraction of that.

“Certainly kids don’t need a lot of toys and equipment and things to be satisfied with playing,” Rintoul said.

READ MORE: What does it mean if your child is considered ‘highly sensitive’?

The participants bring some toys from Canada, but nothing too fancy, mainly small objects that spark the imagination. They’ve observed that play is universal and regardless of where in the world kids live, they are satisfied without the expensive toys.

“You set the equipment and they’ll just pick it up and go at it, whether you’re here in Canada or Peru or Thailand, Cambodia. They all just begin to play,” Monique MacFarlane, a participant, said. She went to Peru with the program two years ago and is going again this year.

“Play is so natural and organic. Kids, they don’t need to be told. They all know how to do it.”

The director of the program said regardless of where the kids are from, she’s observed they often play for a longer period of time with the “loose parts” than the actual toy itself.

READ MORE: Why ‘no-cut sports programs’ can benefit students and schools

“A child might play with the Christmas present they got for a few minutes, but what they really play with for at least four times as long is the wrapping, the box and the paper,” Rintoul said.

“So if we think about that in Cambodia or Thailand, or someplace where they might not have material things, we’re talking about sticks and rocks and dirt.”

Give kids free time to play

One of the focuses of Play Around the World is unstructured play time.

Rintoul said compared to the countries such as Peru, Cambodia and Thailand, Canadian kids have more structured time.

“We do in North America tend to schedule our kids from morning ’til night,” Rintoul said. “So where in their day are they getting choice and control?”

Rintoul said the reasons behind play deprivation might be different between Canada and other countries, but the consequences are similar.

Often when kids don’t have control over anything in their lives, and are deprived of unstructured free play, it can be detrimental to their development, she said.

“We really think it’s something that adults need to pay more attention to or value,” Rintoul said.

MacFarlane said when she first started with the program, she had to learn to not jump in and correct of guide the kids.

“That was a challenge for myself, was to let them lead their own play and ask them, ‘What are you doing, what are you creating?’ and not suggesting what it could be,” MacFarlane said.


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