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Embracing Unstructured Outdoor Play

Our household is thrilled with the recent spike in sunnier, warmer days. Getting outside to play in the winter does not come easy for us, but when the grass starts to green and the kids can get their own boots and sweaters on to head out the door, we are a much happier family.

I was amazed to hear the statistic this week that, on average, North American children are only spending four to seven minutes a day outside playing. Last year, a UK report concluded that more than one in nine children had not visited a park, forest, beach, or other natural environment in more than a year. I’d like to think our numbers in New Brunswick would be a bit more encouraging, but that doesn’t mean we’re not catching up.

It’s seldom that our family sees anyone else at a playground when we visit. It’s partially a reflection on where we choose to play, I’m sure, but a recreation leader last summer told me the playgrounds in Moncton are consistently underused. This is one of the driving factors behind the YMCA’s Mobile Fun Team, which is trying to get families used to coming out to the playgrounds and hoping the habits will remain after the team leaves.

I don’t think you’d find a parent who says they don’t want their kid to spend more time playing outside. Most of us understand the various reasons this is a good idea, and yet surveys show we spent twice as much time outside when we were younger, compared to our kids today. Lifestyles have changed. Kids lead more scheduled lives than we did. Screen time is much more prevalent and interesting. Parents have a heightened sense of fear when it comes to letting children roam the neighbourhood. So how do we make more outdoor play a reality?

Maybe New Brunswick should look at ways to keep those four to seven minute trends from taking hold here. Creative after-school programs that are government-funded and not highly structured could work to help parents support their children in connecting with the outdoors, while also addressing our overall education goals.

British Columbia’s Dr. Scott Sampson, the friendly paleontologist who appears at the end of Dinosaur Train episodes and author of How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature, makes the case that outside free play (that is, not time spent in organized sports or on a school field trip) helps hone critical thinking skills, as well as creativity. This is also the reasoning behind the amount of unstructured play that’s incorporated into the Finnish school system.

Dr. Sampson also wants parents and policy makers to remember that outdoor time for kids is not just about battling rising obesity rates, attention disorders, and mental health. It’s about the planet’s future. In a recent interview with CBC, he stated that solving the major scientific challenges of our time, including climate change, species extinction, and habitat destruction, will go unsolved unless people care about where they live.

Maybe we also need to keep rethinking what we need in a playground. Families are looking for practical elements, like shade, washrooms, low-height water fountains, and accessibility, but we can also keep providing more natural elements like we’ve seen at Centennial Park, Rebecca Avenue Playground, and Salisbury’s Highland Park. Let’s bring more art into our play spaces, and more little free libraries. Ensure that there are spaces that can appeal to a family with children of various ages by adding ziplines, basketball courts, and outdoor fitness equipment.

Whatever the plan, let’s make sure we’re working to push against this trend of decreased outdoor time, not just lagging behind.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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