Snipped from Toronto Star 22 May 2014
Parents over-policing child's play, obesity expert says
The dangerous perception of outdoor play is largely unfounded, says child-obesity expert Dr. Ian Janssen, but studies show parents and kids fear outdoor play more than ever.
Bernard Weil / Toronto Star Order this photo
Kindergarten students at Scarborough's Mary Shadd Public School test out the new playground installed last year at the front of the school after the prevous one burned to the ground. The dangerous perception of outdoor play -- largely unfounded, says child-obesity expert Ian Janssen -- can lead to decreased physical activity.
By: Graham Slaughter Staff Reporter, Published on Thu May 22 2014
The monkey bars in Ian Janssen’s neighbourhood are marked by cautionary signs: “Play at your own risk” and “Parent or guardian required at all times.”
Janssen, a child-obesity expert, sees these signs as part of the reason Canadian kids are among the world’s least active — outdoor play is equated with risk.
“It’s just ridiculous,” said Janssen, a professor of kinesiology and public health at Queen’s University. “I have yet to see catastrophic injuries.”
This is one of many ways that parents, educators and lawmakers are over-policing play, Janssen said.
In 2011, a Toronto school banned all “hard balls” and replaced them with foam.
Many municipalities have written bylaws for road hockey.
In Kingston, Janssen’s hometown, building a tree house requires a city-issued permit.
“It’s just creating more challenges and barriers when we have these types of rules,” Janssen said. “Think of what you’re telling children about play.”
He presented his ideas Wednesday to a Toronto audience of parents, public-health practitioners and teachers at the first Global Summit on the Physical Activity of Children. His talk came one day after Canadian kids scored a pitiful D-minus in a 15-country report card on physical activity, which found only 4 per cent of Canadians ages 12 to 17 meet the recommended daily half-hour of heart-pumping exercise.
The dangerous perception of outdoor play is largely unfounded, Janssen said, but studies show that parents and kids fear playing outside more than ever.
Janssen was part of a recent Queen’s University study, awaiting publication, that asked 26,000 Canadian children ages 11 to 15 about their physical-activity levels. This was measured alongside local crime rates and how safe they felt at home.
Researchers found that kids who perceived more danger were less likely to be physically active outside, even when real crime rates did not match that perception. Janssen illustrated this point with a slide showing a kitten peering into a mirror, which reflected a lion.
“Perceptions are more important than the real risk,” he explained. “As the safety perception decreases, so does physical activity.”
Parents are no better. As national crime rates have decreased, the perception of “stranger danger,” as Janssen called it, has remained the same. Statistics Canada polled parents of young children in 1993, 1999, 2004 and 2009 and asked whether they believed crime had gotten better or worse in their neighbourhoods.
Only about 3 per cent believed crime had lessened, while one-third of parents repeatedly said crime was more prevalent.
Janssen thinks this may be related to media reports of child abductions, which he says create an unnecessary fear of strangers when, in fact, many abductors are known to the child.
“Tori Stafford is the last case I recall hearing about in Canada. It’s a tragic case, and I feel for the family . . . but it’s extremely rare,” Janssen said. “This just doesn’t happen. But when it does, you hear about it in the news for years.”
Active play — simply letting kids go outside and create their own fun — has a variety of social and physical pluses.
“You’ve got to work through the rules with your friends, work through conflicts. You’ve got to have lots of imagination and creativity. You’re working on lots of skills you might not get to when adults are supervising you,” he said.
“You can’t be going to hockey, baseball all the time. It’s very expensive. Whereas active play, you let the child go outside, open the door, it’s free and accessible to most children.”