As Canada’s national charity dedicated to injury prevention, Parachute is committed to helping keep children safe. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t want children to be active. Parachute is aware of the importance of active and “risky” play in young children’s healthy growth and development—especially given the past year’s radical limitations in kids’ sport, school, and social routines.
Parachute’s annual Safe Kids Week campaign—taking place this year from May 30 to June 5—is an important initiative that raises awareness of preventable injuries and encourages community involvement. Past focuses have included pool fencing legislation and drowning prevention, fall prevention, concussion in kids, and promoting active transportation, whether walking or wheeling.
This year Parachute is focused on outdoor play—while staying safe.
On board for outdoor play
After sharing a number of different ideas around relevant topics and data, the 2021 campaign theme of #PlaySafeOutdoors was chosen through discussions with Parachute’s injury prevention partners across the country.
“What we do as a national organization is look at what is relevant and timely in terms of our focus on children,” says Valerie Smith, Parachute’s director of programs. “With the pandemic going on, we knew that there was a real increase in the number of children who were spending time indoors, not getting to play outdoors with their friends, and parks were closed in various provinces and territories around the country.
“In this case, everyone was very much on board for outdoor play, especially because of physical and mental health reasons in light of the pandemic,” she says. “Now more than ever, we know there’s a real need to get kids outside and playing.”
Children are falling behind in activity
Weighing in on the decision-making was alarming new data from studies done during the early months of the pandemic, when organized sports were paused, schools went virtual, and physical distancing resulted in less play time with friends.
Even before restrictions were put in place because of COVID-19, ParticipACTION’s 2020 Report Card found that Canadian children were barely getting a passing grade for activity, receiving a grade of D+ for overall physical activity and an F for both active play and 24-hour movement behaviours.
The pandemic certainly didn’t help raise Canadian kids’ activity grades. A study commissioned by ParticipACTION to support the report card found that only 4.8 percent of children and 0.8 percent of youth were meeting 24-hour movement behaviour guidelines during COVID-19 restrictions.
With playgrounds closed or access restricted in parts of the country and children learning online from home, the study also unsurprisingly showed lower physical activity levels, less outdoor time, and higher sedentary behaviour (including screen time) since the beginning of the pandemic.
Our cooped-up kids are being deprived of play and are suffering because of it.
This Safe Kids Week, parents and kids are encouraged to #PlaySafeOutdoors and embrace the outdoors through active, unstructured, and explorative (and yes, risky!) free play. Besides the physical benefits of daily play, engaging in regular unstructured activities can help children’s well-being by easing anxiety and establishing normalcy during a not-so-normal time in their young lives.
Outdoor play and hazards versus risks
Instrumental in the Safe Kids Week messaging is the difference between hazards—something dangerous that can cause serious injury and can be avoided—and risks—where children can recognize and evaluate situations such as playing at heights and great speed, and decide on a course of action.
Even with the perceived danger that some may feel comes from exploring forests, biking along roads, or climbing trees, allowing children to engage in exciting play outdoors positively impacts their health and social development.
Rachel Lamont, manager of knowledge translation and programs at Parachute, acknowledges the negative connotation that’s associated with the word “risk,” but says that it’s important and beneficial to allow children to play outside.
“Naturally when you’re outside [kids] might be closer to water or to the road, or climbing trees and doing things that they can’t necessarily do inside. So in theory, they’re doing things that can pose more of a risk, but our campaign this year is drawing attention to really knowing the difference between a real hazard and a risk.”
“Knowing when there’s a hazard or something dangerous that could cause serious injury—like a broken railing, unsafe playground equipment, rotting wood on bridges—are what we want parents to manage and be aware of,” says Lamont.
She explains that while some activities, such as playing near water, may still require parental supervision depending on each child’s abilities, being given the freedom to head off on new adventures and try out new skills, like climbing trees, is essential and beneficial to children’s development.
“There could be risks associated with some activities, but by letting kids explore and grow, in most cases, the benefits will outweigh the risks,” Lamont says. She also notes that risk changes over time as kids develop. Getting “lost” for a toddler could be a hidey hole in the bushes, but an older child could safely explore their neighbourhood with friends.
Children’s level of independence and risk mitigation varies around the world, says Smith.
“Most North American playgrounds meet voluntary standards with limits on how high kids can climb, and everything is designed to make sure our kids are perfectly safe, as safe as we can keep them,” she says. “But the kids are getting bored, so they’re climbing on top of the structures they are supposed to be playing on and finding their own ways to come up with risk.”
Lamont explains that letting kids play outside, with all its risks, can be beneficial for their health. By allowing children opportunities to explore and create, and the freedom to challenge themselves with adventurous play, kids stay engaged, learn their own boundaries, and become confident dealing with risk. And that confidence is an important aspect of preventing injuries.
“We know that their physical activity and their mental health are dependent on that unstructured outdoor play,” adds Smith. “Our vision is long lives, lived to the fullest. We want children, and youth, and people of all ages including seniors to continue to be active and have fun while being aware of and mitigate hazards.”
Small steps and counting to 17
Parachute recognizes that stepping back and allowing children to be more adventurous and independent isn’t always easy, and encourages small steps and achievable goals as a way to start.
Dr. Mariana Brussoni of the University of British Columbia and partner organization Outdoor Play Canada suggests that when you see a child taking a risk, take 17 seconds to step back and observe before saying anything. It may seem like forever when you’re feeling nervous for them, but that 17 seconds allows kids to assess a situation and use their own reasoning, and become creative and resilient.
Parents can support, rather than direct, their children’s play while also taking safety into consideration. Watching from afar through a window, providing your kids with a way to check in from time to time, gradually giving them more freedom, having an open dialogue, and assessing situations together will help parents become more comfortable while allowing kids to develop their own risk-assessment and problem-solving skills.
“Whether we’re dealing with youth or adults or children, it’s beneficial to actually get them to reflect on a question like ‘Is that a smart thing to do? What do you think might happen and how do you think you’re going to keep yourself from falling and hurting yourself?’” says Smith.
By letting kids experiment and push themselves and their bodies, they have the chance to be active, develop skills, and gain a wider understanding of their surroundings. This will help keep them moving confidently for life.
Read more about risky play:
Why I love watching my kids engage in risky play outdoors
What to do when you and your partner disagree about risky play
Be a lifeguard to your child’s “risky” play
Say yes to adventure: How to be a partner in your child’s daring play