We Cannot Let Children's Outdoor Play Go Extinct

At the current rate, however, it's certainly endangered.

picnic with a teddy bear
A little girl enjoys a picnic with her teddy bear.

Getty Images/Catherine Falls Commercial

If you thought kids weren't playing outside enough before the pandemic hit, then you may be alarmed to learn the problem is worse now than ever before. When schools, playgrounds, and parks closed a year ago and families hunkered down in their homes for months on end, children fell out of an outdoor play habit that was already precarious. 

Despite the fact that "stay at home" does not mean "stay inside" (according to Outdoor Play Canada), many children retreated to screens and handheld devices for entertainment – a shift that was condoned by parents and viewed as a necessity under the circumstances. "Desperate times call for desperate measures," I heard more than one parent say. By April 2020, less than 3% of Canadian children were meeting the recommended 24-hour guidelines for physical activity, sedentary behavior, and sleep, and 42% were spending less active time outdoors.

In an article for The Conservation called "Rewild Your Kids: Why Playing Outside Should Be a Post-Pandemic Priority," John Reilly, professor of physical activity and public health science at the University of Strathclyde, and Mark Tremblay, professor of pediatrics at the University of Ottawa, express concern that outdoor play is going the way of the dodo – in other words, slowly becoming extinct. 

"Like extinctions of species – which happen partly because we were not aware of them – important behaviours and habits could also become extinct because we simply don’t see the trends. As part of the COVID-19 recovery plan, active outdoor play should not just be encouraged and prioritised. Participation needs to be monitored, too."

Reilly and Tremblay explain that research has shown lack of outdoor play is linked more to one's social environment (as in, norms and habits) than the physical environment. It is not lack of places to play that keeps kids from heading outside, but rather a culture that fails to prioritize it. That cultural influence likely comes from both parents and society in general, where technology has taken over as a main and accepted form of entertainment. 

We should not stand for this. Outdoor play is so good for kids. The authors write, "A large body of research evidence shows that active outdoor play has benefits for child health, wellbeing, development and educational attainment. Play is so important to childhood that it is enshrined as a human right in article 31 of the UN Rights of the Child." Risky play in particular, as we've explained before on Treehugger, helps kids to gain social skills, physical strength and balance, risk management skills, resilience, and confidence – and much of this happens more readily outdoors. 

Outdoor Play Canada has said that sending kids out to play is one of the best thing we can do for their health, which is why it's somewhat ironic that attempts to preserve health during a pandemic have resulted in so many children missing out on one of the healthiest things they can do. It cited a 2015 position statement released by a panel of Canadian health experts that said,

"The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the outdoors is far better for physical activity, air quality, social interaction, connecting with nature, staying away from screens, health promotion and reducing communicable disease transmission."

Outdoor Play Canada went on to say that, "Not only is communicable disease transmission lower in the outdoors, but immune function is enhanced with increased active outdoor play and physical activity – a double-defence against COVID-19." Knowing this, the outdoors is precisely where we should want children to be for as long as possible every day.

If parents, guardians, educators, policy makers, and other adults are serious about helping children to recover from the ongoing mental, emotional, and physical effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, then prioritizing outdoor play is an absolute must. Together we must rebuild a social environment that supports and encourages families to spend time outdoors. We must "restore the habit of playing outside," as the authors say, and fight its impending extinction.

What Can You Do?

If you're a parent, do this by mandating a minimum number of hours that your kids must play outdoors before being allowed screen time. Remove superfluous extracurriculars from your life to allow for this time. (Yes, it matters just as much.) Dedicate portions of the weekend or evening to outdoor excursions. Implement a daily hike or outdoor meal. Teach your kids how to walk or bike to school. Sign up for the 1,000 Hours Challenge.

If you're a teacher, hold classes outside. Take your students for hikes in nearby forests or green spaces. Fight for their right to go out for recess several times a day, weather notwithstanding, and teach them how to dress appropriately for it. Support expert-led calls for a "summer of play" that encourages children to spend a few months recuperating from COVID-induced stresses, rather than cramming missed lessons.

If you're involved in municipal government, prioritize the creation of safe communities that are conducive to children playing. Lower the speed limits, build sidewalks and crosswalks, preserve parks, build interesting playgrounds with loose parts, install bike paths with safe connections across busy streets, fund skate parks and outdoor skating rinks and pools and more. 

If you're a neighbor to a busy young family, tell them you don't mind the sound of children playing outside. Suggest that the children play in your yard, too, to give them more room to spread out. Send your own kids outside to play with other kids, so as to help normalize the presence of children on sidewalks, streets, and yards. 

Together, we can do this.