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Canadian Public Health Association

Risky play is essential for child development

Child at play

As summer approaches and warmer temperatures arrive, you might expect to see kids actively, independently playing outdoors; but they aren’t. In fact, Canadian children spend over 7.5 hours a day being sedentary,1 while less than 9% of 5-17 year olds achieve the overall benchmark physical activity levels2 (at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day to achieve health benefits3). These levels of activity gave Canadian children a D minus for activity in the 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.1 They are also symptoms of a broader concern about children’s mobility. In fact, a recent article in a British newspaper showed how child mobility has changed in one family over four generations: from the 1920s, where an 8-year-old boy roamed up to 6 miles per day; to the 1960s, where his son-in-law was permitted to travel up to 1 mile from home on his own; to present day, where his great-grandson is allowed a 300-yard distance.4

There are many reasons for this shrinking mobility, including perceptions of “stranger danger,” bullying and traffic,5 but these safety concerns appear to be largely unfounded as the odds of child abduction by a stranger are extremely rare (1 in 14 million), and children are 8 times more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident as a passenger than as a pedestrian.1 Overall, parental overprotection and societal attitudes that lean toward parental supervision have contributed to eliminating the active, independent, unstructured (risky) aspect of outdoor play. Yet, children need this type of play, as it contributes to their physical, emotional and psychological development which supports the skills necessary to thrive as adults. In fact, given their choices, kids willingly participate in many kinds of thrilling, exciting play, including play at speed, at heights, and with tools and sharp objects, as well as getting lost and rough-housing. These activities could cause injury, but kids have been shown to be good at self-regulating to protect themselves.6

Another barrier to this type of play is the concern regarding playground injuries, with the resultant increased insurance liability costs and likelihood of being sued. These have led to increased safety measures and adult supervision, which limit children’s opportunities for risky outdoor play. While limiting playground injuries is an important component of children’s safety, children’s long-term health should be considered of greater importance.7 This notion has led to the development of a Canadian outdoor active play position statement which states that access to active play in nature and outdoors – with its risks – is essential for healthy child development, and that opportunities for self-directed play outdoors should be increased in all settings.8 This statement is based on the findings from a systematic literature review which indicated that the positive health effects of risky play outweighed the benefits of avoiding it.9

Community-based interventions and policy initiatives are necessary to address the barriers for outdoor play.10 As part of a suite of initiatives generously supported by the Lawson Foundation’s Outdoor Play Strategy, CPHA with its partners Saskatchewan in motion and Ottawa Public Health are developing a risky play policy toolkit, in collaboration with various stakeholders. The aim is to increase children’s access to active, independent, unstructured outdoor play by addressing risk concerns and their influence on insurance liability and tort law. The resulting toolkit should be applicable to urban and rural communities.

  1. ParticipACTION, 2015.  The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors. The 2015 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Toronto, ON: ParticipACTION.
  2. Colley RC, Garriguet D, Janssen I, Craig CL, Clarke J, Tremblay MS. 2011. Physical activity of Canadian children and youth: accelerometer results from the 2007 to 2009.  Canadian Health Measures Survey. Health Reports 22:15-23.
  3. Tremblay MS, Warburton DE, Janssen I, Paterson DH, Latimer AE, Rhodes RE, et al. (2011). New Canadian physical activity guidelines. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 2011;36(1):36-46; 47-58.
  4. The Daily Mail. How children lost the right to roam in four generations. 2007 Jun 15. Available at: (Accessed March 11, 2015).
  5. Carver AV, Salmon J, Hume C, Timperio A, Crawford D. Children’s independent mobility – is it influenced by parents’ perceptions of safety? Burwood, Vic: Deakin University, 2006.
  6. Sandseter EBH (2007).  Categorizing Risky Play – How can we identify risk taking in children’s play?  European Childhood Education Research Journal, 15(2): 237–52.
  7. Play Safety Forum. Managing Risk in Play Provision: A Position Statement.  National Children’s Bureau; London, UK: 2008.
  8. Tremblay MS, Gray C, Babcock S, Barnes J, Costas-Bradstreet C, Carr D, et al. 2015.  Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play. Int J Environ Res Public Health 12(6):6475–650.
  9. Brussoni M, Gibbons R, Gray C, Takuro I, Sandseter EBH, et al. 2014. What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children? A systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health 12(6):6423–54.
  10. Lee H, Tamminen KA, Clark AM, Slater L, Spence JC, Holt NL. 2015.  A meta-study of qualitative research examining determinants of children’s independent active free play. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 12(1):5.

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