For love of free play and risks

For love of free play and risks
Many of your childhood memories may involve playing outside, but children now spend much of their time indoors. What has changed, and why is it important to bring back the joy of free play outdoors?

Many of your childhood memories may involve playing outside, but children now spend much of their time indoors. What has changed, and why it is important to bring back the joy of free play outdoors?

According to kinesiologist Bruno Durand, the culture of helicopter parenting is one of the reasons why kids no longer spend as much time playing outdoors. “Parents are scared something bad will happen to their kids outside: they’ll either get hurt, have an accident, or, even worse, get kidnapped,” says Durand. “These fears are irrational—society is safer than it has ever been. But when something rare, like a kidnapping, occurs, it immediately becomes front-page news, giving some parents the impression that it’s dangerous to go outside. That puts a major damper on the idea of playing outdoors.”

Nowadays, families also tend to have packed schedules, leaving kids with less free time. What’s more, many parents believe they have to organize games and enroll their little one in different activities for their child to develop properly. They’re wrong! For Durand, outdoor playtime should be a priority. It allows kids to use their imagination and choose and organize their own games, all of which is good for their development.

Jessica, for example, always lets her kids—two-year-old Mathilde and four-year-old Rémi—play outside after daycare. “We spend 20 to 45 minutes in the yard,” she says. “I’m always close by, but I let them decide what they feel like doing. They love pretending to make soup by filling buckets with dirt and water.”

“When kids get to choose what games they play, with whom, and by what rules, they get to know themselves better,” says Mathieu Point, an educational studies professor at the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières. They discover their likes and dislikes and what they enjoy doing. Research also shows that children are more active when engaged in free play.

This type of play allows them to practise decision-making skills, build their confidence, and become more independent. Tu Huynh, Rémi and Mathilde’s father, is still amazed by how resourceful and creative his son is when he plays in the yard. “He knows where everything is, makes up games, and rarely asks for help,” he says.

Learning to take risks

When children play outside, activities such as climbing rocks and trees or sticking their hands in the mud allow them to develop their taste for adventure and discovery. Some parents’ first instinct is to say, “Be careful, you’ll hurt yourself!”; “Don’t do that, you’ll get dirty!”; or “No, that’s dangerous!” But parents should learn to bite their tongues.

“It’s important for children to take risks,” says Guylaine Chabot, a health sciences professor at the University of Quebec in Outaouais. “It’s part of their normal development—a way for them to test their limits, discover what they’re capable of, and build confidence.”

According to Chabot, keeping your kids indoors may pose a greater long-term threat to their health than allowing them to play outside. After all, there is little incentive to get up and be active when playing inside the house. “It can lead to health problems,” says Chabot.

How can parents encourage their kids to go outside?

Specialists say that the key is to trust your child. “Kids know what risks they can take,” says Sylvie Gervais, founder of the coop organization Enfant nature. “A child will climb a rock only if they know how to get back down. And if they start climbing a tree, it’s because they can.”

Kinesiologist Durand suggests that parents change their habits. “Observe, don’t interfere,” he says. “Watch your child as they move around and explore with care. This will help you trust them more.” Of course, Durand adds, you have to know the difference between risk and danger.

Fifteen minutes is all it takes for a child to invent a game. Remember to allow your little one enough time to use their imagination during free play.

“A risk is a challenge that your child may or may not choose to take, such as jumping off a rock instead of climbing down on hands and knees,” he explains. “A danger is something your child doesn’t see, such as a metal pipe sticking out of a structure.” It’s important for parents to make sure their children are not exposed to any dangers. But once the coast is clear, they should stand aside and let their kids do their own exploring.

Parents also need to accept that their kids are going to get dirty sometimes and get the odd scratch or bruise. According to the experts we spoke with, it’s not a big deal. Children will naturally do an about-turn if they find themselves faced with too big a challenge.

“It’s not always easy, but I’m trying to be less protective,” says Émilie, mother of three. “My daughter is five and loves climbing trees. By watching her, I’ve learned that she knows her own limits. When she can’t go any higher, she’ll climb down.”

Émilie notes with pride that she says “Be careful!” less and less often. “I trust them. I even refuse to help them,” she says. “If my kids ask to hold my hand as they climb a tree or rock, I say no. If they can’t do it alone, it’s because they aren’t ready yet.” Durand believes this is a healthy attitude. “Children who always get help and don’t have the chance to explore on their own will get hurt more often when they’re older, because they don’t know their own physical abilities.”


Playing it too safe?

Jungle gyms must conform to a number of safety standards to prevent falls and other accidents. They present less of a challenge than natural elements, so children get bored quickly. Toddlers are actually more active when playing with items such as balls and hoops than when climbing on jungle gyms. “Jungle gyms do, however, have the advantage of helping children make friends,” says educational studies professor Mathieu Point. For instance, children will often hang out at the top of or under playground equipment when playing restaurant or other role-playing games.


Photo: Maxim Morin and gettyimages/bigandt_photography


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, July–August 2018
Research and copywriting: Julie Leduc
Scientific review: Claude Dugas, Professor, Department of Exercise Science, University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières (UQTR)