09/13/2019 10:59 EDT | Updated 09/13/2019 16:14 EDT

Outdoor Play Is Essential For Kids' Health, Even If Parents Worry: Study

Kids desperately need more freedom, say University of British Columbia researchers.

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Freedom to roam gives children confidence and independence, but parents are too anxious to let them go out alone.

Parents just want their children to be safe — to make it out of childhood, and all the scary things that threaten it, unscathed and in one piece. But too many restrictions on their freedom could actually be detrimental to their health: kids today are far less fit than they were a generation ago.

Not only are they less fit, but they’re also “weaker and fatter,” too, say the researchers behind “Running Free: Children’s Independent Mobility,” a new documentary from the University of British Columbia’s school of kinesiology.  The film centers on evidence that parents no longer let their kids play outside until the street lights come on, or walk around at night unchaperoned. In other words, children are on a shorter leash than ever, and it’s having a tangible effect on their bodies. 

Negin Riazi, a PhD candidate in kinesiology whose research informed the documentary, told HuffPost Canada that we’re living in a “risk-averse society,” where helicopter parents thrive on unsubstantiated worry. 

Watch: Is “lawn mower parenting” the new “helicopter parenting?” Story continues below.

“What we’re seeing is that parents want to prevent any and all risk exposures for children,” Riazi said, “and so we’re limiting their self-sufficiency and their freedom.” Yet many of the concerns that parents seem to have, Riazi said, are actually unfounded, based more on dramatic anecdotes and isolated media reports than
hard facts or evidence.

“It’s interesting that we have these fears now, because it’s actually a safer time to be a child now then it was in previous years,” Riazi said. “The odds of a child being abducted by a stranger, for example, are like one in 300,000.” (Stats vary.)

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Though parents fear stranger danger, it's actually safer for kids to walk to school than to be driven there.

What Riazi is referring to is the “stranger danger” concern, an anxiety that has justified preventing kids from staying out late or wandering alone.

“One thing to think about is that car crashes are actually the leading cause of death in Canada,” Riazi said, “so it’s statistically safer for kids to walk to school than to ride in a car.”

The problem with these limitations goes beyond physiology. Not only are kids between ages five and 17 not achieving the recommended levels of physical activity, they’re also at risk for a number of other health-related concerns as a result of lower independent mobility.

A report in Psychology Today found that parents who are overprotective can actually increase their children’s anxiety, and make them more afraid to face normal repercussions associated with the mundane risks in everyday life. 

The benefits children get from being allowed to play outside on their own far outweigh the risk they face in doing so.

“It’s up to parents to teach kids the difference between danger and risk,” one parent from Cambridge, Ont. told Macleans last year. “Being dangerous is letting a child play with matches unattended. Embracing risk is showing them how to build a fire safely so they won’t get burned.”

It’s important for kids to take risks, and to learn from their mistakes. Some failures are actually constructive, and impeding a child from making them out of fear for their wellbeing can serve to stunt their development in the end, child development specialist Rebecca Weingarten told Macleans.

“The important thing to remember is that there are a number of benefits that children get from being allowed to travel or play outside on their own,” Riazi said, “and they outweigh the risk that they face in doing so.”

Riazi points to research that has found that kids who are allowed to travel and play outside without supervision display a number of skills that others don’t have: they have better risk-assessment skills, they make better decisions, they’re more self-confident, and they’re much more resilient.

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Acquainting kids with their neighbourhoods is one way to ensure they can be out by themselves and still be safe.

What can be done to help?

There are plenty of ways that parents can help their kids be safe without putting them on total lockdown. One of the suggestions Riazi’s research yielded was providing kids with cell phones.

“They provide a sense of security for both the parent and the child,” Riazi said. “If something were to happen — like, the kid is on a bus and it goes in the wrong direction — they can still call and talk to their parents to check in.”

Riazi also says that it’s worth it for parents to take walks with their kids and familiarize them with the neighbourhood and its landmarks. This way, they can have more confidence with their child’s ability to navigate the space safely, since they’ve already been guided through it.

“But it’s also a collaborative effort,” Riazi said. It’s also important for us to have more child-friendly environments, which means working on things like traffic-calming measures: lowering speed limits around schools and parks, for example, or encouraging schools to provide cycling and traffic safety courses.

“Even city planners and urban developers need to think about how to make neighbourhoods safer,” Riazi said. “It’s not all up to parents.”