Parental Perceptions of Play
Children’s unstructured play has an important role in children’s healthy development1 as it promotes mental and physical health, learning,2-4 social behaviour, and independence.5 It also develops conflict resolution and risk management skills, which equip children for risk navigation in adulthood.1 In spite of these benefits, children’s engagement in unstructured play has declined: they are currently spending less time outdoors than previous generations.6 In a recent survey, 70% of mothers reported having played outdoors every day as children compared to only 31% of their children, while 56% said they spent three (3) hours or more playing outdoors daily compared to only 22% of their children.6 Similarly single, stay-at-home, and gay fathers have stated that they, too, felt less restricted to engage in outdoor risky play when they were younger than their children do at present.7
Outdoor play is influenced by factors such as age, gender, the social environment (e.g., parents, peers, neighbourhood cohesion, the number of children playing outdoors), the physical or built environment (e.g. neighbourhood factors, large backyards, cul-de-sacs), and engagement in recreational screen time.6 In addition, the child’s independence, attitudes (e.g., preferred activities), and the state of facilities (e.g., playgrounds and parks)8 have an effect. Parental concerns about “stranger danger” (i.e., parental beliefs concerning their children being harmed by strangers) and traffic may reduce the likelihood of outdoor unstructured play.9,10 In this briefing, a summary of findings is provided regarding parental perceptions of children’s unstructured play.
Fifty-one percent of Canadian parents say they want their children to play more outdoors, but are worried for their child’s safety.11 American evidence supports this viewpoint: support for outdoor play decreased as their worry increased about neighbourhood hazards, such as traffic, rundown parks, crime, violence, drugs, gangs, and weapons.12 In addition, urban parents had higher levels of concern for their children and were less likely to allow them to play outside. Furthermore, children in the inner city were less physically active outdoors compared to their counterparts in suburban communities, as their parents’ perceptions of safety were higher in more affluent suburban communities.13 Similarly, parents with children living on busy streets were more likely to indicate that the streets are not safe for play.14 Due to the interaction between neighbourhood and social factors, children may be less likely to play away from home, even if they live in walkable areas with ample access to parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities.15
One study found that children of families living in low socio-economic neighbourhoods perceived more neighbourhood hazards than families residing in middle to high socio-economic neighbourhoods, but this was associated with higher reported physical activity levels.16 This indicates that those families living in a lower socio-economic neighbourhood may recognize potential hazards or dangers in their environment, but their recognition does not limit their children’s engagement in outdoor physical activity. Further research in the area is needed to better understand the relationship.
Thirty-nine percent of parents who responded to a recent survey noted that being fearful about strangers stopped them from letting their children play outdoor with friends.17 Child abductions, however, most often occur at the hands of family members and acquaintances, while true stranger abduction is exceptionally rare.18 In 2014, there were 41,342 missing child reports in Canada, of which only 29 were related to true stranger abduction.19 This equates to less than 0.1 per 1000 cases.
Parents’ perception of traffic can negatively influence a child’s access to outdoor play as parents may fear that their child could be struck and injured by a car.20 In fact, motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of injury and death among children;21,22 however, Canadian children are eight times more likely to be involved in a fatal motor vehicle accident as a passenger than as a pedestrian.23 Parents choosing to chauffeur their children to a destination in an effort to avoid this problem may be, in part, perpetuating these traffic concerns,24 as driving their children to play will contribute to the volume of vehicles on the road and reduce the level of neighbourhood supervision that could be provided during children’s active commuting.
The Rural-Urban Divide
Growing up in a rural community is thought to promote independence among children.25 Data from England, however, indicate that safety concerns associated with strangers and traffic were prevalent in rural communities.25 Growing up in small, remote, and poorly serviced communities also has its own challenges, such as limited public transportation and a feeling of isolation.25 Australian26 and Canadian27 studies did not find a significant difference in children’s outdoor physical activity levels between urban and rural neighbourhoods.
Parent Concerns and Playgrounds
The Canadian Standards Associations (CSA) has established a standard for “Children’s Play Spaces and Equipment” (CAN/CSA-Z614) that describes technical requirements and practices (i.e., materials, installation, strength of equipment). These requirements contribute to playground safety28 as they are designed to minimize the likelihood of serious and/or life-threatening injuries.28 Although the Standard was developed as voluntary criteria, it has been made mandatory for daycare operators in Quebec and childcare licensure in Ontario.
One study found that the Standard has resulted in a reduction in children’s playground injuries.29 This change in injury rates, however, may not be significant. Furthermore, the cost of modifications to meet CSA requirements may not justify their implementation given the rarity of injuries on Canadian playgrounds.27 In addition, several studies have shown that the play structures at many parks developed using this Standard were uninteresting or not challenging enough for primary-school-aged users.30 Early childhood educators have also expressed a desire for more challenging equipment and play structures in outdoor play spaces.31
Children’s Independent Mobility
Independent mobility is the extent to which children can travel away from their home and play unsupervised.32 Children with greater independent mobility are more likely to meet and play with peers,33,34 and often have higher physical activity levels.35 Parents’ perceptions of safety and fear of crime often limit how far children can walk or bike around their neighbourhood, although older children can often roam unsupervised to a greater extent than younger children. As a result, children’s ability for independent travel outdoors has decreased.
Steep declines have been reported in the distances travelled by subsequent generations of family members.36,37 Data from England have shown that in 1971, 86% of primary school children were allowed to travel home from school by themselves, while in 2010 this proportion dropped to 25%.36 In Australia in 2010, 32% of 8-12 year olds were permitted to roam unsupervised up to 100m away from their home, and 64% were not allowed to travel more than 1km.8 A separate study in 2016 showed that 37% of 10-11 year olds were not allowed to walk further than their own street.37
Parental overprotection (“helicopter” or over-involved parenting) may limit children’s ability to engage in unstructured play and is negatively associated with children’s engagement in physical activity.38 It can also be perceived as a loss of trust between parents and their children,39 which has detrimental effects on children’s mental health and can result in more psychological problems and reduced self-esteem.40 This research has traditionally focused on the mothers’ parenting practice as they are often the primary care provider.40 Fathers can also demonstrate over-protective behaviours toward their child’s activities, and curtail activities that would otherwise be considered safe and appropriate.7,41 These fathers cited pressures placed on them by other parents, as well as anxiety and fear of injury, as reasons for this behaviour.7,42
Current social norms regarding “good parenting” include constant supervision to ensure children’s safety. It is exemplified by incidents involving children being brought to a police station for walking home alone from school,43 and child services being called to speak to parents for letting their children play unsupervised in the backyard or in the street.41
Parents receive messages concerning the importance of enrichment opportunities that are often costly and require parents to chauffeur their children to organized activities after school and on weekends.44 This behaviour is especially true of middle to high-income household parents who spend time chauffeuring children to and from school and after-school structured activities.45 It has led to increased time constraints, thereby leaving children with little free time for children’s unstructured play.46 Organized activities have a developmental benefit but the danger lies in excessively pushing children towards them, resulting in children experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress. A balance should be established such that academic activities are not prioritized over unstructured, child-led play, as the latter type of physical activity45 can help counteract children’s experiences of anxiety and stress associated with too much structured, adult-supervised activity.48
Parents’ beliefs concerning neighbourhood safety45 and worries about traffic and “stranger danger” can limit children’s opportunities for independent mobility and unstructured, child-led play. Furthermore, many parents and children believe that most playgrounds do not provide enough challenge30 which discourages children from engaging with playground equipment. As a result, families may travel longer distances to find parks that are more suitable for their children’s need for challenging and stimulating play.27 Similarly, concerns of perceived safety in the neighbourhood appear to be one of the most influential barriers to unstructured child-led play.48
Importantly, there is limited research on minority parents’ perspectives on these issues and research is required to explore minority parents’ perspectives on overprotection, children’s unstructured play, and barriers to motivating children to engage in play activity.7,49,50
- Brussoni M, Gibbons R, Gray C, Ishikawa T, Sandseter EBH, Bienenstock A, et al. What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children?: A systematic review. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2015;12(6):6423–6454.
- Sandseter EBH, Kennair LEO. Children’s risky play from an evolutionary perspective: The anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. Evol Psychol 2011;9(2):257–284.
- Engelen L, Bundy AC, Naughton G, Simpson JM, Bauman A, Ragen J, Baur L, Wyver S, et al. Increasing physical activity in young primary school children—It’s child’s play: A cluster randomised controlled trial. Prev Med 2013;56(5):319–325.
- Brussoni M, Olsen LL, Pike I, Sleet DA. 2012. Risky play and children’s safety: Balancing priorities for optimal child development. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2012;9(9):3134-48.
- Hüttenmoser M. Children and their living surroundings: Empirical investigation into the significance of living surroundings for the everyday life and development of children. Children’s Environments 1995;12(4):403–413.
- Clements R. An investigation of the status of outdoor play. Contemp Issues Early Child 2004;5(1):68-80.
- Bauer MEE, Giles AR. Exploring single, stay-at-home, and gay fathers’ perspectives of masculinity and the influence these have on their understandings of their 4- to 12-year-old children’s outdoor risky play. J Mens Stud 2018. Doi: 10.1177/1060826518787491
- Veitch J, Salmon J, Ball K. Individual, social and physical environmental correlates of children’s active free-play: a cross-sectional study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2010;7(1):11.
- Valentine G, McKendrck J. Children’s outdoor play: Exploring parental concerns about children’s safety and the changing nature of childhood. Geoforum 1997;28(2):219-35.
- Brockman R, Jago R, Fox KR. 2011. Children’s active play: self-reported motivators, barriers and facilitators. BMC Public Health 2011;11(1):1.
- IKEA. The Play Report.
- Kalish M, Banco L, Burke G, Lapidus G. Outdoor play: A survey of parent’s perceptions of their child’s safety. J Trauma Acute Care Surg 2010;69(4):S218-22.
- Weir LA, Etelson D, Brand DA. Parents’ perceptions of neighborhood safety and children’s physical activity. Prev Med 2006;43(3):212-7.
- Veitch J, Bagley S, Ball K, Salmon J. Where do children usually play? A qualitative study of parents’ perceptions of influences on children’s active free-play. Health & Place 2006;12(4):383-93.
- Carson V, Kuhle S, Spence JC, Veugelers PJ. Parents’ perception of neighbourhood environment as a determinant of screen time, physical activity and active transport. Can J Public Health 2010;101(2):124-7.
- Romero AJ, Robinson TN, Kraemer HC, Erickson SJ, Haydel KF, Mendoza F, Killen JD. Are perceived neighborhood hazards a barrier to physical activity in children? Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2001;155(10):1143-8.
- ParticipACTION. Are Children too Tired to Move? The 2016 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto, ON: ParticipACTION, 2016.
- Shutt JE, Miller JM, Schreck CJ, Brown NK. Reconsidering the leading myths of stranger child abduction. Criminal Justice Studies 2004;17(1):127-34.
- Royal Canadian Mounted Police [RCMP]. Just the facts: Child abduction, 2016.
- Valentine G. “Oh yes I can” “Oh no you can’t”: Children and parents’ understandings of kids’ competence to negotiate public space safely. Antipode 1997;29(1):65–89.
- Timperio A, Crawford D, Telford A, Salmon J. Perceptions about the local neighborhood and walking and cycling among children. Prev Med 2004;38(1):39-47.
- Heggie TW, Heggie TM, Kliewer C. Recreational travel fatalities in US national parks. J Travel Med 2008;15(6):404-11.
- Injury in Review Spotlight on Road and Transport Safety. 2012 Edition. Ottawa, ON. Public Health Agency of Canada, 2012.
- ParticipACTION. The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors: The 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto, ON: ParticipACTION, 2015.
- Valentine G. A safe place to grow up? Parenting, perceptions of children’s safety and the rural idyll. Journal of Rural Studies 1997;13(2):137-48.
- Veitch J, Salmon J, Ball K, Crawford D, Timperio A. Do features of public open spaces vary between urban and rural areas? Prev Med 2013;56(2):107-11.
- Bruner MW, Lawson J, Pickett W, Boyce W, Janssen I. Rural Canadian adolescents are more likely to be obese compared with urban adolescents. Int J Pediatr Obes 2008;3(4):205-11.
- Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. CAN/CSA-Z614-14- Children’s playspaces and equipment. Government of Canada, 2017.
- Howard AW, MacArthur C, Willan A, Rothman L, Moses-McKeag A, MacPherson AK. The effect of safer play equipment on playground injury rates among school children. Can Med Assoc J 2005;172(11):1443-6.
- Veitch J, Salmon J, Ball K. Children’s perceptions of the use of public open spaces for active free-play. Children’s Geographies 2007;5(4):409-22.
- Herrington S. Rewriting the ground rules for outdoor play spaces. Inj Prev 2015;21(5):344-347.
- Schoeppe S, Duncan MJ, Badland H, Oliver M, Curtis C. Associations of children’s independent mobility and active travel with physical activity, sedentary behaviour and weight status: a systematic review. J Sci Med Sport 2013;16(4):312-9.
- Prezza M, Pilloni S, Morabito C, Sersante C, Alparone FR, Giuliani MV. The influence of psychosocial and environmental factors on children’s independent mobility and relationship to peer frequentation. J Community Appl Soc Psychol 2001;11(6):435-450
- Page AS, Cooper AR, Griew P, Davis L, Hillsdon M. Independent mobility in relation to weekday and weekend physical activity in children aged 10–11 years: The PEACH Project. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2009;6(1):1.
- Stone MR, Faulkner GE, Mitra R, Buliung RN. The freedom to explore: examining the influence of independent mobility on weekday, weekend and after-school physical activity behaviour in children living in urban and inner-suburban neighbourhoods of varying socioeconomic status. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2014;11(1):1.
- Shaw B, Watson B, Frauendienst B, Redecker A, Jones T, Hillman M. Children’s independent mobility: a comparative study in England and Germany (1971-2010), 2013.
- Janssen I, Ferrao T, King N. Individual, family, and neighborhood correlates of independent mobility among 7 to 11-year-olds. Prev Med Rep 2016;3:98-102.
- Janssen I. Hyper-parenting is negatively associated with physical activity among 7–12year olds. Prev Med 2015;73:55-9.
- Rosin H. The Overprotected Kid. The Atlantic, 2014.
- Holmbeck GN, Johnson SZ, Wills KE, McKernon W, Rose B, Erklin S, Kemper T. Observed and perceived parental overprotection in relation to psychosocial adjustment in preadolescents with a physical disability: The mediational role of behavioral autonomy. J Consult Clin Psychol 2002;70(1):96.
- The Canadian Press. Winnipeg mom in hot water after kids play in backyard. The Globe and Mail, 2016.
- Brussoni M, Olsen LL. The perils of overprotective parenting: fathers’ perspectives explored. Child Care Health Dev 2013;39(2):237-45.
- Schulte B, St. George D. ‘Free-range’ family again at center of debate after police pick up children. The Washington Post, 2015.
- ParticipACTION. Are We Driving our Kids to Unhealthy Habits. The 2013 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto, ON: ParticipACTION, 2013.
- Little H. Relationship between parents’ beliefs and their responses to children’s risk-taking behaviour during outdoor play. J Early Child Res 2010;8(3):315-30.
- Gray C, Gibbons R, Larouche R, Sandseter EB, Bienenstock A, Brussoni M, Chabot G, Herrington S, Janssen I, Pickett W, Power M. What is the relationship between outdoor time and physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and physical fitness in children? A systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2015;12(6):6455-74.
- Ginsburg KR. The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics 2007;119(1):182-191
- Lee H, Tamminen KA, Clark AM, Slater L, Spence JC, Holt NL. A meta-study of qualitative research examining determinants of children’s independent active free play. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2015;12(1):1.
- Bauer MEE, Giles AR. The need for inuit parents’ perspectives on outdoor risky play. Polar Rec 2018. doi:10.1017/S0032247418000360
- Giles AR, Bauer MEE, Darroch F. Risky Statement?: A Critique of the Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play. World Leisure Journal (in press).
Last modified: March 12, 2019