11/21/2013 05:15 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Why Canada Needs More 'Free Range' Kids

Much is being made these days of the need for children to put down the tablets, remotes and other tech devices and get outside and play. Medical experts and media pundits are keying on health issues, such as childhood obesity and diabetes, as the key driver for increased play.

And they are correct; but there are other important reasons: future jobs and economic growth.

From an economic perspective, one of North America's competitive advantages has been our creativity and our drive to innovate. Sure, China, India and elsewhere can mass-produce products or provide services cost effectively, but many of the products transforming today's consumer-driven tech world (iPhones, tablets and other new devices) are predominantly designed in North America.

It's our position that an important input to this creativity is the traditional North American childhood of unstructured play and inquisitiveness. Unfortunately, recent trends are toward over-programming our kids with adult-supervised sports and activities: hockey and soccer practices, music and dance lessons, swim and ski teams. They're so overtaxed by adult rules and boundaries that it's no wonder when they finally get some downtime they head to the game console, texting, anything mind numbing.

We're not advocating the end of adult supervision or rules. But we are saying children need time to play, to sit on a swing with legs dangling and just thinking, to have some freedom and a little less pressure. Kids need "free range" activities like road hockey, fort building, kick the can and bicycling to build confidence and problem-solving skills.

In one of the most innovative marketing campaigns in years, Canadian Tire gets this with its "We all play for Canada" national marketing program. Inside one of the commercials is a poignant line: "Knowing half our kids aren't active matters -- for a country without strong children cannot stay strong."

North America, particularly the U.S., has traditionally lagged behind other countries in standardized educational testing. And for years, this was considered a horrible thing. Problem is, like Big Data, it all depends on what you measure if you want the truth. North American kids do just fine on standardized tests if they are from middle and upper income families. Seems to us like more a question of poverty than education.

But because the so-called experts misinterpret the data, so many North American parents press their kids to perform better, work even harder, catch up to other countries with the potential downside of stealing time from play -- and childhood.

In his new book, IDEO founder David Kelley and his brother, Tom, argue that creative development in childhood unleashes innovation success down the road. IDEO is one of the most innovative design firms in the world and David Kelley created many icons of the digital generation -- the first mouse for Apple, the first Treo smartphone, the thumbs up/thumbs down button on your TiVo's remote control, to name a few. He knows of what he speaks.

Over the past 30 years, we've seen smart business people drive costs out to improve margins and increase profits. This lead to the rise of offshore outsourcing and other efficiencies. It also pushed linear thinking and number-crunching to the fore in North American corporations.

But with the explosion of consumer-driven technology, we're seeing greater demand for creative, innovative thinking from bright young people that have a mix of technological and social science skills. That's why innovative thinking has moved to the forefront of policy discussion at places like MaRS in Toronto and the Research and Innovation Council in New Brunswick.

But unless there's a return to play and more "free range" activities for our over-programmed kids, we could see one of our greatest competitive advantages -- imagination and the innovation it enables -- evaporate in the not-too-distant future.


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