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Canadian kids aren’t playing outside enough, experts say, and it’s harming their health

WATCH: Experts suggest that parents start integrating outdoor play into their regular activities.

Kids are extremely unlikely to get kidnapped if they play outside. They’re also unlikely to be hit by a car, die by falling off a swing or otherwise face serious harm in the great outdoors, experts say.

They actually face more harm by spending all their time inside, according to Dr. Mark Tremblay, a senior scientist at the CHEO (Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario) Research Institute. Indoors, the dangers come in the form of increased chances of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, lower bone mineral density and mental health issues, he said.

The belief that kids are safer inside, he said, is “the biggest myth going, because from a health perspective almost nothing good happens indoors.”

That’s why Tremblay and others have started a new group, Outdoor Play Canada, that aims to get kids spending more time outside.

Staying indoors

It’s a serious issue, according to Mariana Brussoni, an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia and an investigator at the B.C. Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

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“What we see over time is that kids are playing outside less than previous generations and also have a much more constricted range of how far they wander from their home,” she said.

READ MORE: Are Canadian kids losing the ability to play? New study suggests a problem

Her research explores injuries in kids, and finds that parents tend to overestimate the risks.

“I have the injury stats, and what those show is that it’s never, ever been a safer time to be a child in Canada than it is right now.”

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Seat belts and car seats actually made the biggest difference in children’s injury rates, she said, though kids are still killed most often while riding in a car — meaning that driving your kids to school is not the safer choice.

Outdoor play essential for kids growing up in a wired world
Outdoor play essential for kids growing up in a wired world

But it’s not just parents’ fears keeping kids at home, she said.

More people now live in urban areas and areas designed for cars, where they may be less likely to know their neighbours, she said. With more women working and fewer adults at home during the day, there’s less of a sense of “informal eyes on the street.”

Parents worry about giving their kids the best start in life, so they often sign their kids up for lots of extracurricular activities, cutting back the time they have for unsupervised play, she said.

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READ MORE: Don’t worry, parents, rough play is normal part of childhood

Screens, whether they’re smartphones, televisions or computers, also eat up kids’ time, Tremblay said. A recent Statistics Canada report found that children between the ages of five and 17 had an average of three hours of screen time per day. Most screen time is spent indoors, Tremblay said.

All of this time inside hurts children’s health, he said. “Childhood obesity — obesity in general, not even childhood — is a huge one,” Tremblay said, “and with that comes Type 2 diabetes and cardiometabolic disorders and so forth.”

Go Out and Play! Tips to keep you AND the kids having fun out-of-doors in the winter weather
Go Out and Play! Tips to keep you AND the kids having fun out-of-doors in the winter weather

When you’re indoors near the cupboard, you tend to snack more, he said. And all that sitting hurts kids’ bones, too — some studies have shown increased rates of forearm fractures among children over time.

“When we’re indoors instead of outdoors, we tend to be sitting, especially when we’re on digital media,” Tremblay said.

“When we sit, our skeletons decompose. They’re only strong because we use them.”

To him, though, the scariest trend among his pediatric patients is in issues of mental health.

“The explosion of childhood depression, anxieties, [and] paranoias is extraordinary,” Tremblay said, “and there’s no doubt it’s linked to the disconnect with the three-dimensional world which exists outside and not on a small digital screen.”

Getting kids back outside

Do kids even want to be outdoors? Right now, “I think it’s safe to say that the interest is pretty low,” said Leigh Vanderloo, an exercise scientist at ParticipACTION.

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Kids really are interested in screens, she said. “It’s how we socialize. That’s how we do our work, our homework. All of those types of things.”

That can change, though.

“The good thing is that this topic resonates so much with people,” Brussoni said. “All you have to do is ask someone about their favourite childhood play memory and they get kind of this distant look in their eyes and this smile on their face and you know you can hook them that way.”

One thing parents can do to overcome their fears of their child getting hurt is to just stand back, she said. “Next time you’re on the playground or you’re with your child and you’re really tempted to say, ‘Be careful,’ or ‘Get down,’ or ‘Stop,’ you just count to 17.”

“And in that time, even that short amount of time,” Brussoni continued, “you can give yourself the space to let the child play it all out, to see, do you actually really need to step in?”

READ MORE: Tips for getting your kids to embrace outdoor play

Vanderloo suggests that parents start integrating outdoor play into their regular activities. “A great way to just integrate more active outdoor play into their life is to get others in the family outdoors even if that’s as small as walking to the bus stop together or to the school. Even a couple of times a week going for 15-minute walks after dinner together, planning a family picnic or kicking a ball around.”

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Children should be allowed to engage in risky, outdoor play: ParticipACTION
Children should be allowed to engage in risky, outdoor play: ParticipACTION

Change can be simple, too. “The two greatest investments I ever made in terms of the physical activity of my kids was the basketball net in the driveway and the hockey net in the driveway,” Tremblay said.

And it’s not all on parents. Outdoor Play Canada wants to change government policy to encourage more outdoor play.

For example, if the Children’s Fitness Tax Credit comes back, as the Conservative Party is proposing this election, it should include things like a new bike as well as scheduled activities, he said. He’d also like to see bylaws that restrict play on municipal roads lifted — which exist in various cities.

“What we’re hoping is that we can get a critical mass,” he said. “When kids start going to the park, more kids will go to the park.

“We want to take back the outdoors so that we’re comfortable with it.”