Category Archives: Children’s Play

Criminalizing Childhood Independence Can Increase Barriers to Children’s Leisure and Recreation

This week in my Youth Development through Recreation and Sport course, we’ve been talking about the role of parents in children’s development. The discussion reminded me of a news story that was initially reported on in January 2015 in which parents were investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) for allowing their 10 year-old and six-year old to walk home alone (about 1 mile) from a local park. At the time the story broke, it was the third news story in less than a year that involved parents encountering trouble with the law for their children walking to or from local parks/playgrounds alone or playing in parks/playgrounds without a parent being present. These stories are originating in the United States, but they get press in Canada and Canadian parents’ reactions to the story have been varied. There are those who agree that children should be constantly supervised, those who describe themselves as “free range parents” who allow their children to explore and experience the world without constantly monitoring them, and those who would argue their beliefs and approach to their children’s freedom fits somewhere in between.

childhood independence

These types of stories surprised me. Part of my surprise that a parent is accused of neglect in a situation where his/her child is walking home from a park could be related to the freedom I had as a child. Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, I was allowed to bike around my neighbour and to friends’ houses by myself or with my younger sister, to walk or bike to the convenience store in my neighbourhood to get a treat with my allowance, and to go to my elementary school playground and play with my sister or friends. That freedom came with opportunities to assess and take risks, to make decisions, to explore, to problem solve, and to actually have adventures to share with my family when asked, “What did you do at the playground today?” No one interpreted my sister and I playing at the playground by ourselves as my parents being neglectful. Doing these things was considered as “normal”.

News stories like the recent one about the Meitiv family who had their children, age 10 and 6, picked up and delivered home in a police cruiser midway through their 1-mile walk home from the park indicate – as Petula Dvorak, columnist with the The Washington Post suggests – that there has been a cultural shift in criminalizing childhood independence. This shift, I believe, comes with a significant consequence to children’s leisure and recreation behaviours.

Increasing Barriers to Children’s Play, Leisure, and Recreation

Some children face a number of barriers to accessing recreation and leisure pursuits. They may be limited to activities or experiences in which their parent(s) can afford to financially support or by their parents’ ability to transport them to facilities for programs. Some parents have irregular work schedules or travel frequently and can’t consistently support children’s regular participation in organized programs. What happens when children are also limited from using recreation resources in their neighbourhoods or communities unless they are supervised at all times? Will stories of parents being scrutinized for allowing their children to walk or bike to parks or playgrounds in their area contribute to parents feeling increasingly uncomfortable with allowing or encouraging children to play independently?

Before the story was over for the Meitiv family, they were found responsible, in March 2015, for “unsubstantiated” child neglect meaning CPS would keep a file on the children for five years. Then, in April 2015, their children were picked up a second time from a local park. A happy ending of sorts came in June 2015, when they were cleared of all neglect charges and CPS revised its policy. Children will not be considered neglected without evidence that while unsupervised, the child has been harmed or placed at substantial risk of being harmed.

Reconciling the Mixed Messages

I wonder how we, as a society, can expect to have success with efforts such as active transportation (e.g., kids walking or biking to school) if we also communicate that it is not appropriate for children to walk that same neighbourhood on their own to the park or playground or local pool.

ParticipACTION produced a commercial that prompted parents to “Bring Back Play”. This ad was targeted at parents who are of the generation in which being out playing and being active was common. But can we really bring back play… play as it was? Is the campaign tag line something parents living within the current culture of parental anxiety and fear about children’s safety can even relate to (O’Connor & Brown, 2013). Perhaps first, we need campaigns that emphasize how safe neighbourhoods are or campaigns that encourage people to get to know their neighbours so that people can feel more comfortable letting their children move autonomously on the streets near home.

The latest ParticipACTION commercial series communicates that screen time limits play time or opportunity and that we (parents/children/other influential adults) need to “make room for play”. The images are, for example, of children playing hockey in an empty parking lot (see video below) or basketball in park court or skipping rope outside. In none of these videos are children being supervised by parents. How might this fit with parents’ own anxiety about leaving children unsupervised or their concerns about how they might be perceived by others if they were to send their child to the part unsupervised. Is the message that it is okay for children to play in the neighbourhood as long as they are in a group?

ParticipACTION Make Room for Play Video

If We Criminalize Childhood Independence…

… then I wonder why we are not criminalizing childhood physical inactivity and screen time. I’m not suggesting any aspect of childhood leisure, recreation, or play should be criminalized. However, if we are going to label parents as neglectful if they facilitate opportunities for their children to develop independence and autonomy, it does not make sense that we would ignore other potential “dangerous” childhood behaviours. For example, while currently working on a revision to its recommendations, the American Pediatric Association has previously discouraged screen use for children younger than 2 years of age. Several studies have produced evidence that screen-time, especially passive television time, can be harmful for children under two. Television tends to have negative effects on children’s language development, reading skills, short-term memory, sleep, and attention/concentration (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013). Children’s declining levels of physical activity are linked with increasing levels of childhood obesity (Healthy Active Living for Children and Youth, 2002) and we are bombarded with messages about the negative consequences of childhood obesity in terms of the short- and long-term health of children (e.g., sleep disorders, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol). However, we don’t see stories about parents being considered as neglectful if they allow their child to watch tv for 8 hours on a Saturday or play on tablets all day. Yet, one could argue, that those parenting decisions could be just as harmful or perhaps more harmful than allowing a children to play in a nearby park and walk home afterward.

The Meitivs seem to be making thoughtful parenting decisions that foster independence and  contribute positively to their children’s development. And, the only risk of walking home from the park – as identified by the police at least – was that the children could be abducted by a stranger. Yet, the odds of that are pretty slim according to statistics Dvorak presents in her Post piece. Fear mongering, in my opinion, does little to support parents in facilitating children’s independence in their leisure time nor does it support parents in helping their children acquire the various assets that are associated with positive youth development and thriving.


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2013). Policy statement: Children, adolescents, and the media. Pediatrics, 132(5), 958-961.

Healthy active living for children and youth (2002). Paediatrics & Child Health, 7(5), 339-358.

O’Connor, J., & Brown, A. (2013). A qualitative study of ‘fear’ as a regulator of children’s independent physical activity in the suburbs. Health & Place, 24, 157-164.


From Play Structures to iPads: What’s Happening to Children’s Play Spaces?

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a news story about a transformed play space at the Guildford Town Centre (a mall) in Surrey, British Columbia. The mall play space went from being a place where kids could run around, climb, and go down a slide, to a place where children can engage in interactive play with…iPads. Parents are not happy, and I don’t blame them. As someone concerned with youth physical activity levels as well as positive youth development, I share some of the same concerns parents do.

iPads for interactive play area

New indoor “interactive play park” at Guildford Town Centre

Mall Response

“More active play and can result in children being hurt”: The mall response was that in their experience providing slides and things for climbing leads to much more active play and, apparently, children being hurt. It seems that the mall is just another example of how risk is being systematically eliminated from children’s play areas. Adults seem so concerned for children’s safety that they feel almost compelled to eliminate any potential sources of danger. Playgrounds are disappearing or are behaviours within them are strictly regulated. Last year, a story surfaced about a New York middle that school banned hard balls like soccer and footballs during recess and would not allow tag to be played without adult supervision citing these activities as dangerous. Other schools are taking out swings or banning games of tag – also perceiving these as potentially dangerous activities. It seems adult fear and anxiety about child safety (and perhaps insurance company’s concerns over liability) is changing the nature of the experience of childhood… in neighbourhoods, on playgrounds, and now, it seems, at the mall play space.

“We’re pleased to offer a quiet play environment for children”: There are lots of times and places where children are expected to be “quiet” – libraries, nap time at day care, waiting rooms at the doctors offices, during the school day, while a younger sibling is sleeping, and while adults are having a conversation and have asked not to be interrupted. Play areas and playgrounds are normally designed to allow children to let of steam and to have fun – to shriek with joy and to laugh and yell, “Hey Mom/Dad… look at me”. This would be especially true, I would think, when toddlers and younger children are out at the mall with a parent. In stores, children are told to not touch and to keep their voices down (or at least this is often what I see and overhear). Some children are in carts or strollers – somewhat confined while their parents try to complete their errands without having to worry that their child will wander away if something catches their eye. The play area is a place parents can take their child to offer him/her a break from parental errands and the restrictions of a stroller or cart. So, personally, I do not see the value or even the logic of offering “a quiet play environment”. If parents want a quiet play environment for their child, I’m sure they’d head to the library or home, but not to the mall. I can imagine that for some children, the mall is a very stimulating place and perhaps there is a need for a quiet space or quiet time after being there, but in reading articles and seeing news clips of parents’ reaction – a “quiet environment” does not seem to be what parents or children need or want.

What Bothers Me Most About the iPad Play Area

Already too much screen time: The youngest generation of youth – digital natives as they are sometimes called – already spend a significant portion of their time in front of a screen consuming media. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average amount of screen time for kids is seven hours per day. The Academy recommends that children under the age of 2 consume NO television or entertainment media because children’s brains develop best by interacting with people, not screens. Why would we want to replicate an experience children could have at home in a public play space? In a society where we are regularly getting failing grades on children’s physical activity levels (Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2012; 2014), why would we want to turn an active play space into a screen-dependent one?

The importance of learning to manage risk: The spread of technology and the fact that it is being designed to engage children from infancy has changed the landscape of childhood has contributed to children spending less time exploring their worlds. Add to that, parents’ anxiety about stranger danger and injuries (Brockman, Jago, & Fox, 2011; Gill, 2007), which is in part a result of messages parents receive in the media and even from public health agencies (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2012a; 2012b) about safety during play, the current generation of children are not given the chance to take risks. Canadian researchers who recently completed a study on children’s play (Alexander, Frohlick, & Fusco, 2014) argue that risk taking is an integral part of children’s play preferences and supports their development. Through risk taking, children get to challenge their abilities and move forward in their development; they explore limits; and they and learn to manage risks and deal with uncertainty – all of which are important for their development into adults who can function in a world that has risks.

Will Change Come?

Alas, despite parents expressing outrage about the Guildford Mall play space – arguing that the play area is not fun for their child, arguing that this doesn’t support the idea that parents are supposed to be helping their children to be more active, and arguing that the installed iPads offer nothing unique from an experience they could offer at home – the mall stands by its decision. Perhaps it is too much to expect that a commercial organization (concerned mainly with making money) might seek to offer something that supported children in moving their bodies and interacting with other children. However, for those consumers who are parents and to whom the play area is important… this decision could hurt the traffic at the mall and retailers bottom line.

References and Further Reading:

Active Healthy Kids Canada. (2012). Is active play extinct? Report card on physical activity for children and youth. Toronto, ON, Canada: Author.

Active Healthy Kids Canada. (2014). Is Canada in the running? Report card on physical activity for children and youth. Toronto, ON, Canada: Author.

Alexander, S. A., Frohlich, K. L., & Fusco, C. (2014 – online first). Problematizing “play-for-health” discourses through children’s photo-elicited narratives. Qualitative Health Research, doi: 1049732314546753.

Brockman, R., Fox, K. R., & Jago, R. (2011). What is the meaning and nature of active play for today’s children in the UK? International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 8(15), 1–7.

Future Foundation. (2006). The changing face of parenting: Professional parenting, information and healthcare. London: Future Foundation.

Gill, T. (2007). No fear: Growing up in a risk averse society. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Public Health Agency of Canada. (2012a). Funding to prevent injuries in outdoor play spaces: Fact sheet.

Public Health Agency of Canada. (2012b). The Government of Canada supports safe outdoor play spaces.

Rosen, H. (2014, March 19). The overprotected kid. The Atlantic.



Elf on the Shelf: Potential Roles Related to Leisure

elf on shelf

My nieces’ Elf, Natasha, on December 8th, 2013

Let me start with a reminder that I am not a parent. I don’t have children who are having “Elf on the Shelf” experiences. However, I am an observer of others’ efforts re: The Elf. Friends post photos on Facebook of what the Elf is up to in their homes and I see their pins to “Elf Ideas” pages on Pinterest. I have nieces and a nephew who have Elf on the Shelf experiences. And recently, I have read a number of articles  that have offered various perspectives (some quite aggressive and nasty) on the Elf  along with  responses that argue against those perspectives. I tend to resist the negative judgement on the Elf and its impact on children that some of the articles have suggested (e.g., damaging children’s trust in their parents when they find out the Elf is a lie; creeping out children by suggesting someone is always watching; manipulating children). I don’t know what happens in each family’s home – what they tell their children about the Elf, how children experience it, or how children have reacted when they have become old enough to learn the Elf was moved by their parents each night.

Instead, I’ve found myself focusing on the ways in which the Elf has been portrayed as a leisure enthusiast and this has prompted me to consider the Elf’s role in promoting leisure.


Anticipation is an important stage of leisure experiences. It is the period leading up to the participation stage. During the anticipation stage, we look forward to the event or experience. We prepare for and learn about the experience or event. The Elf seems, from what I have observed, to assist with the anticipation stage of Christmas. I am not suggesting other things do not. Obviously, preparing for holiday concerts, using advent calendars, and participating in various traditions associated with the holidays (those connected with religion and those not) such as baking treats, getting a tree, decorating, attending church services all can help build anticipation. The Elf on the Shelf may be another opportunity to help build children’s excitement about the holidays and all its events.

The Elf can help with anticipation beyond just Christmas. Let’s take my nieces’ Elf, Natasha. I snapped a photo of her (above) when I was visiting them a couple of weeks ago. My youngest niece was having her “friends” birthday party on the Sunday afternoon I was there. It was a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse themed party. When we woke up Sunday morning, we found Natasha sitting on top of the piano in the living room – having colored a picture of Mickey in preparation for the party. The girls were excited that Natasha had helped to decorate. She signaled the significance of one part of their day.

I’ve also seen Elves holding signs cheering for a particular hockey team or sporting little team jerseys. I’m never entirely sure whether the Elf is cheering for the team that the family is cheering for or a rival team (in the case of mischievous Elves) , but the Elf likely generates conversation about the upcoming game that day or weekend.

Promoting Leisure Activities

I have seen Elves reading books, playing board games, skating, baking, skateboarding, knitting, zip lining, and playing musical instruments. I wonder what conversations these “scenes” create. Do children become interested in playing the game that the Elf was playing? Do they ask about knitting – what it is (depending on the child’s age), how it is done, whether anyone they know knits? Do they ask what zip lining is and where they could do it? Can active Elves generate conversations about the importance of activity? The potential exists for the Elves to generate conversations about leisure activities and provide an opportunity for parents to educate their children and help identify potential interests.

Fostering Curiosity and Use of Imagination

In talking to my nieces yesterday, they told me they found Natasha with some band-aids on (and a few others scattered on the floor) yesterday morning. The girls had created a story for why Natasha had those band-aids on. She had gone for a shot. They created a story, in part, based on their own knowledge and experience. They get band-aids when they get their shots at the doctor’s office. My sister tells me that Natasha generates curiosity and stimulates conversations as the girls try to figure out what she’s doing/thinking and why. Why did she climb up to the top of the Christmas tree one morning when I was there? One suggestion was offered: Maybe it is because the lights were on the tree, but the ornaments had not yet been hung. Natasha might want the family to decorate the tree.

In some ways, Natasha has became part of the girls’ creative play. Just as they create stories when playing with their stuffed animals, Sesame Street characters, or each other, Natasha becomes another character in their creative and imaginative play. What might Natasha do tomorrow?

Creating Memories

One morning during my visit, Natasha was hanging upside down from a curtain rod. My older niece (almost 5 years old) explained to me that Natasha she did the same thing last year. She remembers. Recollection is another stage of a leisure experience and taking pictures of the Elf and his/her activities can help with that recall. Pictures are not necessary though. Conversations about the Elf’s actions can prompt recollections about the various events of the holiday season.

Chance for Adults to “Play”

Let us not forget about parents. Sure, for some, the commitment of changing the position of the Elf each day seems overwhelming given everything else they have going on in the month of December. For those who do decide to engage in the Elf games, it is a chance for them to “play”… to use their imagination, to spend time with reality suspended. Adults don’t do that nearly enough.

Final thoughts…

I think that the most important part of the Elf games is that they are fun – for parents and children. I’m not suggesting that every Elf move should serve a function (e.g., communicate a message or model a behavior). We sometimes focus too much on the “function” and “value” of things we do rather than simply enjoying them for fun. Rather, my point is that the Elf on the Shelf can play some interesting roles related to leisure in the lives of those families who have included an Elf in their holiday activities and traditions.

Supporting Children’s Right to Play and Recreation

GivingTuesday_Facebook Coverphoto

I wasn’t planning a blog post until after I got my grades submitted (end of term craziness does not support one’s ability to engage in creative thinking or be inspired). However, this morning I became aware of a  new movement – Giving Tuesday and was inspired to think about the need to support play. Giving Tuesday follows Black Friday and Cyber Monday – two days focused on engaging in consumer behavior (some of which may be leisure, but from some of what I saw on the news – it wouldn’t satisfy the “enjoyment” component of a leisure experience for me).

In Canada, over 800 organizations have partnered with the Giving Tuesday movement. It is described as a new movement which focuses on giving and volunteering. From the movement’s website, Giving Tuesday is described as,”The ‘opening day of the giving season,’ it is a day where charities, companies and individuals join together to share commitments, rally for favourite causes and think about others.” The point is made that we have two days that are “good for the economy” and now we have a day that is “good for community too.”

This may be an excellent opportunity to perhaps “detox” from Black Friday and Cyber Monday and switch one’s focus.

One of the organizations partnering with Giving Tuesday is Right to Play. It is an organization I chose to make a donation to today because play is something I believe every child should have the opportunity to experience. But beyond the donation, I wanted to highlight Children’s Right to Leisure, Play, and Recreation.

Children’s Right to Leisure, Play, and Recreation

Children’s access to leisure, play, and recreational activities is formally recognized internationally as a fundamental right in Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The terms “rest, leisure, play and recreation” are not specifically defined, although in examining some of the research and discussion on UNCRC Article 31, it seems there is a consensus that leisure and play include unstructured activities that are generally free from adult supervision. Recreation activities tend to be organized, led, and supervised by adults (e.g., sport programs).

Recognizing the Right to Recreation Means…

Promoting the benefits and being an advocate. There has been considerable research on the outcomes of children’s participation in structured extracurricular activities both within the school context and in their community such as through church groups, community sport participation, and club involvement (e.g., Girl Guides or Boy Scouts). Participation is linked with higher academic achievement, positive development (e.g., developing prosocial values, social bonds, resiliency in overcoming challenges), and healthier lifestyles and lifestyle choices to name only a few. Promoting the benefits helps raise awareness of the importance of protecting this right.

Reducing barriers to participation. Unfortunately, not all children have access to recreation activities. Research shows that a high percentage of marginalized children (e.g., living in poverty, children who are newcomers to Canada, children who are an ethnic minority) have no or very limited access to sport and recreation. For marginalized youth, cost and transportation are significant barriers.

  • Offering time periods when fees are reduced or activities are free
  • If a community or organization offers subsidies to citizens who are low income, ensuring the process for accessing the subsidy is not complicated may be crucial to youth being supported with such programs.
  • Providing transportation (free of charge) to events or activities or working to locate recreation opportunities within neighborhoods (e.g., traveling youth programs where leaders or facilitators visit various neighborhood parks or playgrounds within a community to offer youth recreation experiences).
  • Contribute to organizations such as Right to Play or KidSport (in Canada) which help support children whose families could not otherwise afford their participation in activities. Make a donation or volunteer your time to help with fundraising activities or with spreading the word about the organization’s role in supporting children’s participation in play and sport and therefor their development as youth.

Recognizing the Right to Leisure and Play Means…

Supporting unstructured leisure and free play. A few years ago there was a documentary that aired called the “Lost Adventures of Childhood”. It contained stories of children who were so booked up, they did their homework in the car as they were chauffeured between activities. Other children, young children less than 8 years old, were shown participating in a stress management program. Meanwhile, research is showing that those kids who do participate in lots of activities can start seeing diminishing returns, a phenomenon called the “threshold effect” and benefits of participation begin to level off at about five to seven activities. Children need space in their day and week to be able to engage in unstructured leisure and free play.

Promoting and protecting children’s play. Adults should be aware of the importance of play and take action to promote and protect the conditions that support it. Play is imaginative, creative, spontaneous. Generally play and unstructured leisure are engaged in without a specific agenda including specific outcomes to be achieved. The only agenda is the one set by the child and may be to “have fun” or to build something or master something. The guiding principle is that an intervention to promote play acknowledges its characteristics and allows sufficient flexibility, unpredictability, and security for children to play freely. Providing objects for play or taking children to spaces where they can play helps in promoting play. Telling children exactly what they have to do with those objects or in those spaces may not promote play. Also, find ways to counter the popular, sometimes misguided sentiments that children’s free, spontaneous play is frivolous and unimportant and that structure-based, guided, rule-laden activities initiated and executed by adults can serve the inherent play needs of children.

Providing dedicated spaces for children’s play. Skate parks, for example, are important spaces for some youth. These are spaces where they can be creative, learn skills from peers, and practice those skills. Not all communities provide spaces for youth to engage in this activity. Parks, playgrounds, and youth centres are other spaces in which free play and unstructured leisure can occur. Consider being an advocate for youth spaces when your community is engage in planning activities that may involve spaces that could be dedicated to children’s play activities.

And specifically on Giving Tuesday, you might consider making a donation to support children’s play. Or, you might consider volunteering in a way that will support children’s play.


Hopscotch on the Sidewalk in your Neighborhood: An Endangered Species?

Hopscotch – one of the games I played with kids in the neighborhood, my sister, or even on my own on the sidewalk in front of my house. I went through phases with it when I loved it and would spend a lot of my time on that sidewalk and then the interest would wane. Sometimes the phase lasted as long as the days before it rained and the chalked game washed away.

What a great physical activity this was. It got me outside. I had the chance to practice balance (hopping on one foot wasn’t my forte in the beginning) and learned to throw a rock with the precise arm power behind it for the distance it needed to travel. It didn’t require my parents to drive me anywhere at a particular time. I didn’t need others to be able to play or practice, but when others were available it was a great social game. And, it was cheap!

Outdoor play and games like hopscotch could be endangered species.

Fear that Neighborhoods are Unsafe

Documentaries have been produced describing the changes in children’s play and how children are as free to play outside in the way I did in my neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s (for examples, see, Where do the Children Play?; Lost Adventures of Childhood). One key theme tends to be related to parents’ anxiety about and fear for their children’s safety. This anxiety/fear influences their decisions to allow their children to play freely outside in their backyard, on the sidewalks in front of their house, or in neighborhood parks or playgrounds.

In addition to documentaries that have explored this issue, there is also considerable research on parents’ concern for children’s safety. Most of the research captures the perspectives of mothers. Perhaps this is not surprising given research also shows mothers tend to be the key agent responsible for organizing family life including creating opportunities for their children to participate in physical activity and other leisure pursuits. Canadian researchers found that mothers’ perceptions of the quality of neighborhood parks influenced their decisions to allow or restrict their children’s use (Tucker, Gilliland, & Irwin, 2007; Tucker et al., 2009). Some mothers were willing to and did drive outside their neighborhood to go to a park they perceived as being safer or having better quality equipment than the one nearest home. Concerns about the safety of the environment around the family home (e.g., traffic, stranger danger) caused mothers to limit children’s independent play outdoors or how far from home they could go when, for example, riding their bikes (Bevan & Reilly, 2011; Jago et al., 2009). In a study focused on girls, mothers identified lack of sidewalks in the neighborhood as a barrier to their daughters’ physical activity (Gordon-Larsen et al., 2004).

One of the challenges is that parents’ fear and anxiety can produce a vicious cycle of fear. When there is a perception that a neighborhood is unsafe, it is less likely that children will be out and about. There is less social interaction among members of the neighborhood among both children and adults. With less interaction, fears of stranger danger can increase. Parents may then be more likely to transport their children around the neighborhood (e.g., to school, to the park or playground, to a friend’s house). This creates more traffic in the neighborhood which increases road safety fears (Mullen, 2003).

Unfortunately, some children live in neighborhoods where there is physical disorder (e.g., graffiti, beer bottles on the street) and social disorder (e.g., people drinking in public, people selling drugs) can influence both parents’ and children’ perception of a neighborhood’s safety.

Outcomes of Children’s Decreased Neighborhood Outdoor Play

There are some unfortunate outcomes of children not being free to play outdoors or move around their neighborhood. First, many researchers argue and have produced evidence that outdoor play is a strong determinant of physical activity. If simple outdoor activities become extinct, the levels of children’s physical activity could continue to decrease because outdoor play is a strong determinant of physical activity. Second, without activities like road hockey, bicycling, kick the can, capture the flag, and even hopscotch, there could be lost opportunities, as Paul Barter suggests, for developing self-confidence and problem solving skills. Third, with adult rules and strict boundaries, opportunities for exploration, creativity, and innovation may be lost.

Preserving Outdoor Play

Can anything be done to preserve the hopscotch experience or increase the independent mobility of children during their leisure time within their neighborhoods? One study suggests that mothers who interacted with neighbors and felt part of the community were more likely to support the independent mobility of their children. So perhaps knowing one’s neighbors and having one’s neighbors know your children could help parents feel more comfortable with providing their children with more freedom.

Many communities and neighborhoods have installed “traffic calming” measures (e.g., speed humps; speed radars; narrowing streets) to reduce speed and/or volume of traffic where appropriate. I live on a long, straight street with lots of children in my neighborhood. After several reports and complaints to police about driver speed by members of the neighborhood, speed humps were installed at three points on my long street. This has forced drivers to slow down and, from a practical perspective, encourages a relatively slow speed driving the entire street because of the strategically placed humps. Advocating for traffic calming devices may be an action parents (and even neighbors without children) can take to reduce the risk to children playing in the neighborhood.


Some cities are also putting bike lanes on busier streets to provide a space for bikers on the road and to provide a very physical indicator to drivers that they need to share the road with cyclists. Bike lanes can, at the very least, reduce the perception of road hazards and some communities that have made bike lanes part of the road infrastructure notice less vehicle/bicycle conflict (Chen et al., 2012). Changing the infrastructure proves more effective than educating drivers and children about how to behave safely and harmoniously on the road together. Something else to advocate for.

bike lane

The more complicated issues to deal with related to perceived neighborhood safety and children’s outdoor play are those falling under physical and social disorder. Police action in such neighborhoods would be important as would working to make the neighborhood as aesthetically pleasing as possible (e.g., removing graffiti when it appears). However, this takes considerable commitment from members of the neighborhood and the municipal government. A first step may be recognizing that physical and social disorder does affect children’s outdoor play and working to advocate for children’s opportunity to be and feel safe engaging in outdoor play.


Bevan, A. L., & Reilly, S. M. (2011). Mothers’ efforts to promote healthy nutrition and physical activity for their preschool children. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 26, 395–403.

Chen, L., Chen, C., Ewing, R., McKnight, C. E., Srinivasan, R., & Roe, M. (2012). Safetycountermeasures and crash reduction in New York City—Experience and lessons learned. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 50, 312-322.

Gordon-Larsen, P., Griffiths, P., Bentley, M. E., Ward, D. S., Kelsey, K., Shields, K., et al. (2004). Barriers to physical activity: qualitative data on caregiver-daughter perceptions and practices. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 27, 218–223.

Jago, R., Thompson, J. L., Page, A. S., Brockman, R., Cartwright, K., & Fox, K. R. (2009). Licence to be active: Parental concerns and 10–11-year-old children’s ability to be independently physically active. Journal of Public Health, 31, 472-477.

Molnar, B. E., Gortmaker, S. L., Bull, F. C, & Buka, S. L. (2004). Unsafe to play? Neighborhood disorder and lack of safety predict reduced physical activity among urban children and adolescents. American Journal of Health Promotion, 18(5), 378-386.

Tucker, P., Gilliland, J., & Irwin, J. D. (2007). Splashpads, swings, and shade: Parents’ preferences for neighbourhood parks. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 98(3), 198-202.

Tucker, T., Irwin, J. D., Gilliland, J., He, M., Larsen, K., Hess, P. (2009). Environmental influences on physical activity levels in youth. Health & Place, 15, 357–363

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