03:59pm Monday 24 February 2020

Hey kids, get outside! Safety concerns are making outdoor play a thing of the past.

The proportion of school-age kids who play outside after school has dropped 14 per cent over the last decade. Safety concerns, coupled with the lure of technology, are keeping kids inside.

For the sixth year in a row, the 2012 Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card  assigned an “F” to Physical Activity Levels. Only seven per cent of Canadian children and youth meet the Canadian Physical Activities Guidelines of at least 60 minutes of daily moderate- to vigorous- intensity physical activity.

The Report Card, published on May 29, urges parents, schools and policymakers to work together to ensure Canadian children and youth have opportunities to be physically active during this critical developmental period in their lives.

“In addition to obesity prevention, there is evidence that increased physical activity is related to children’s school performance and attention,” says Dr. Catherine Birken, Staff Paediatrician and Project Investigator at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and Assistant Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto. “Encouraging physical activity in children is important in developing motor milestones, and maintaing a healthy lifestyle.”  

Active play has also been shown to improve and foster motor function, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving skills, the ability to control emotions, social skills and preschoolers’ speech.

New findings, released in the Report Card, revealed that despite school-age kids only getting 24 minutes of moderate- to vigorous- intensity physical activity out of a possible four hours of daily “free time,” 74 per cent of Canadian kids in Grades four to six would choose to do something active after school.

An increase in crime reporting has fuelled parental fears of letting their children play outside, although crime rates in Canada have remained stagnant since the 1970s. Eighty-two  per cent of mothers cite safety concerns, including crime, traffic and bullies, as reasons they restrict outdoor play.

Supporting and encouraging opportunities for safe, free, unstructured play may be one of the most promising, accessible and cost-effective solutions to increasing child and youth physical activity.

Too often families are inundated with mixed messages, raising concerns about whether and how parents should encourage and support their kids.  

“Marketing directed to parents does not always provide the right health promotion messages,” says Birken. “As healthcare providers we need to understand and then communicate what will help families help their children grow and learn.”

Birken is one of the leaders in a primary care research network called  TARGet Kids!, a collaborative project between SickKids and St. Michael’s Hospital that brings together child health researchers and community practitioners together with the goal of improving children’s health through effective and timely primary care. TARGet Kids! Is studying physical activity in over 4,200 children under six in Toronto, and soon to be expanding to Winnipeg and Montreal.

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