The last few weeks have seen three major milestones in the journey towards a healthier, happier childhood for children in North America. While not directly connected, they could come to be seen a tipping point. So what are these milestones? The first is the launch last week of a position statement [pdf link] – signed by a broad coalition of over a dozen leading Canadian NGOs – that affirms the importance of outdoor play, and that recognises risk and uncertainty as positive features. The media work – which reached the UK media in the Guardian and Daily Mail – ran with the eye-catching slogan “the biggest risk is keeping our kids indoors”. The statement itself is almost as short and sweet:
Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings—at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.
At the same time the Lawson Foundation (which supported the development of this statement) has launched a $CAD 1.5 million (£800,000) funding programme to increase children’s outdoor play opportunities.
The second milestone is the announcement by Child Protection Services in the US state of Maryland that so-called ‘free-range parenting’ (which let’s not forget, would have been called ‘what parents did’ a generation or two ago) is not, on its own, grounds for concern. The Maryland CPS statement was prompted by the much-debated case of the Meitiv family, whose 6- and 10-year-old children were held by the authorities for over five hours after they were picked up by police while playing in a park near their homes. Here’s the key section: “Children playing outside or walking unsupervised does not meet the criteria for a CPS response absent specific information supporting the conclusion that the child has been harmed or is at substantial risk of harm if they continue to be unsupervised.”
True, there are still reports of other similar cases that leave many of us Europeans looking across the Atlantic with bewilderment. Nonetheless, this statement is the clearest expression I have seen from a CPS agency that simply giving children everyday freedoms is not bad parenting. It may well help set a precedent for future decisions across North America.
The third milestone is the recent rejection by the leading North American safety agency ASTM of a proposal to ratchet up playground surfacing standards. This issue, which I took up personally, has been covered a number of times here. As I reported, it appears that supporters of the proposal have not yet formally given up the fight. However, such a public U-turn on this major issue must be seen as a dramatic move away from the conventional ‘risk reduction’ mindset around playground safety.
Going back to that Canadian position statement on play, its value is as much about the messengers as the message, given the breadth of organisations who have signed up to it. It has echoes of the 2002 position statement by the UK Play Safety Forum, which paved the way for over a decade of work to build a more thoughtful, balanced approach to risk in play.
The Canadian statement is backed up by the findings of two systematic literature reviews, published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. The first found evidence of the health benefits of risky outdoor play. Its key conclusion reads: “Play where children can disappear/get lost and risky play supportive environments were positively associated with physical activity and social health, and negatively associated with sedentary behaviour.” The second, on outdoor time and physical activity, found “positive effects of outdoor time on physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and cardiorespiratory fitness.”
As with my own literature review on children and nature (published last year in the peer-reviewed journal Children, Youth and Environments) these findings will not surprise people who are already on board (which probably includes most readers of this post). But they are vital in winning over the doubters, and in making the case for projects that can make a real difference.
Interest in play and risk has arguably been growing for some time now in North America – as shown by last year’s Atlantic Magazine Overprotected Kid cover story (which still crops up regularly in my social media feeds). These three more recent milestones show that this interest is not only spreading, it is also leading to positive change. They are hard evidence that growing number of institutions – including some powerful public and voluntary agencies – are changing their views, their policies and their practices.
I was pleased to be asked to sign the Canadian position statement on outdoor play during my recent trip, where this sense of a tipping point was reinforced at every event. I heard not just voices of concern about children’s losses – the loss of experiences of nature, the loss of everyday autonomy, and the disappearance of children themselves from streets, parks and public spaces. I also heard many positive stories of alliances, opportunities and practical, on-the-ground projects (three of which are featured in the images that accompany this post).
Time will tell whether or not these successes really do mark a major shift towards a healthier, more thoughtful and balanced take on children’s play and free time in North America. But one thing is for sure: they will without doubt bring fresh winds into the sails of campaigners and advocates.
For the stories behind the images