Outdoor Activities Now and Then
Top Contributors - Top Contributors - Robin Tacchetti, Jess Bell, Kim Jackson and Aminat Abolade
Introduction[edit | edit source]
A child’s right to play is enshrined by article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. When asked about their childhood, most adults will probably describe playing in outdoor environments, such as woods, parks, streets and playgrounds. 
Research among mothers in 16 different nations, located on five different continents, revealed their beliefs that both free play and experiential learning opportunities are eroding for children. Although there were significant differences in language, geography, culture, history and religious beliefs across the sample, similar trends were identified. For example, children were mostly watching television in their free time, because it was considered as an acceptable alternative as children had few safe places to accommodate outdoor play activities.
In play, the perception of risk and culture are intricately linked, and depend upon a variety of factors including economic, technological, cultural, legal and historical factors.   Past generations of children played a lot outdoors, while children today tend to play indoors with more technologically advanced toys. 75% of adults in the UK reported that they mostly preferred playing in their local streets, but 41% of today’s children in the UK prefer to play inside a home. It has also been reported that the number of children aged 7-11 years old who are allowed to travel to school without an adult has decreased: from 86% in 1971, to 35% in 1990, and 25% in 2010.
Decreasing opportunities for children to play outdoors are grouped into four categories:
- Time (nature-starved curriculum, time-poor parents, lack of free-range play)
- Fear (stranger danger, dangerous streets, risk averse culture)
- Technology (rise of screen time)
- Space (vanishing green space).
The rising anxiety about children’s safety was described as a common feature of modern societies in the 20th century. Beside overprotective parenting, the conception of childhood has changed. The understanding of a child as resilient and capable shifted to the picture of a vulnerable child who needs continuous safeguarding, although this may not be true for all children and societies. Children incorporate their culture’s roles and activities into their play. The play of children in each culture reflects the values and customs of their communities. Therefore, the expression of play can be understood as a socio-cultural phenomenon.
In a hunting and gathering society in Brazil, children were observed to engage in pretend activities that imitate and mirror adult subsistence activities. Boys were playing with bows and arrows, imitating hunting actions, and girls grinding flour into tacos and making baskets as their mothers do. Such observations suggest that children are active agents in their own socialisation and that play is culturally constructed. However, more perspectives from researchers or practitioners in African countries, minority cultural groups, and immigrants/refugees in high-income countries, persons living with disability, and people from gender-diverse communities are needed to understand local diversities and the translation of elements in risky play to various environments and cultures. As mentioned, perceptions of risk are also subject to cultural interpretation. A growing risk aversion has been described for some Western societies, such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. However, the assumption that indoor play is safer than outdoor play may be misguided in light of the potential harms of the internet (such as violence, cyber-bullying, online predators, pornography), reduced physical activity and unnecessary incidental eating.
Dr. Pooja Tandon from The University of Washington and Seattle Children's discusses physical activity in children:
Active Transportation and Sedentary Behaviour of Children[edit | edit source]
Attention disorders, depression and failure to appropriately use their senses were frequently observed in the last years, and termed ‘nature deficit disorder' on the basis of a lack of first-hand experience with outdoor environments. Physical activity outside also includes active transportation (i.e. commuting to school or other places, either by walking or riding a bike). The percentage of children and young people using active transportation to get to and from places differs greatly between and among countries. For example, for Japan, Zimbabwe, Denmark, Hong Kong and Nepal high levels of active transportation are reported, as well as South Korea, Colombia, Nigeria, Finland or Venezuela. A comparison of 49 countries (actually 47, as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates did not provide data for this variable) has shown that the more developed the countries were, the lower they scored in active transportation of children. In developing countries, active transportation may be the result of a lack of access to public transport and motor vehicles, but highly developed countries scoring high in active transport of children provided both infrastructure and policy to support active transportation.
In the video below, The University of British Columbia discusses inspiring active transportation to school:
Sedentary Behaviours[edit | edit source]
Sedentary behaviours can be defined as “any waking behaviour characterized by an energy expenditure ≤1.5 metabolic equivalents, while in a sitting, reclining, or lying posture”. Screen-based behaviours are often understood synonymously to be sedentary behaviour. Screen time is associated with a variety of negative health outcomes among children and youth. Childhood screen time is particularly concerning in high and very high developed countries. For example, a report from 2012 states that Britain’s children watched, on average, more than 17 hours of television a week. This was up by 12% since 2007. In 2012, British children were also spending more than 20 hours a week online, mostly on social networking sites, and their ‘electronic addictions’ increased, as they grew older. Britain’s 11–15-year-olds were reported to spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen: 7.5 hours a day, which is an increase of 40% in a decade. However, the moderately good grades for sedentary behaviour or screen time in low and middle resource countries are potentially threatened by continuing economic growth and development, probably leading to increased access to electronic devices.
The videos below by the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine explore sedentary behaviour in the early years and the factors affecting sedentary behaviour:
The COVID-19 Pandemic and its Impact on Physical and Mental Health of Children[edit | edit source]
Outdoor risky play for children was recommended by the Australian Physiotherapy Association as a response to school lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. The closure of schools and the shift to remote teaching have led to a decline in school sports participation and an increase in sedentary behavior, resulting in weight gain. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a rise in psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression among both children and teenagers, which can be attributed to a lack of physical exercise. It is suggested that engaging in physical activity could act as a protective factor against mental health issues. A scoping review of 84 studies from all world regions investigated the effects of COVID-19 restrictions on children’s physical activity and their determinants. Researchers have observed a reduction in physical activity levels during the pandemic, both in terms of duration and frequency of engagement, with declines ranging from -10.8 minutes per day to -91 minutes per day (e.g., -45 minutes per day in Chile or -91 minutes per day in Spain). Instances where physical activity increased were often associated with unstructured play and outdoor activities. Notably, in Sweden, where lockdown measures were not implemented, a positive change of +53 minutes per day in physical activity was reported. The decrease in physical activity is particularly worrisome as previous studies have indicated that the majority of children and adolescents worldwide do not meet the physical activity guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization even prior to the pandemic.
The video below by Healthy Population Institute highlights physical activity in children during COVID-19:
Resources[edit | edit source]
- Characteristics and Categories of Risky Play
- Health Benefits of Outdoor Time
- Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Free Risky Play
References[edit | edit source]
- International Play Association: The Child's Right To Play. 2022. Available from: https://ipaworld.org/childs-right-to-play/the-childs-right-to-play/
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