Friday, June 01, 2012

Canadian Kids Get an "F" in Active Play

This week, Active Healthy Kids Canada published their annual report card on physical activity levels of Canadian children and youth, giving kids - and their parents - failing grades when it comes to engaging in active play. You can read the short report here, or delve into the longer report here. The gist was well summarized in an article written by Lauren La Rose for the Globe and Mail:
Many Canadian kids are failing to make the grade when it comes to reaching physical activity targets, with too few hours devoted to active play and too much free time fixated on TV, computer and game screens. Active Healthy Kids Canada released its annual Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth on Tuesday which paints a grim picture of the activity levels of many Canadian youngsters.

The report itself consists primarily of a broad literature review of recent studies, data and articles examining various aspects of kids' physical activity levels, so some of this is definitely stuff we've heard before. The main contribution of this type of report is in how it compiles and makes sense of the data...but in summarizing, there is indeed a bit of a risk of obscuring the source. i.e. if any of these findings or studies included in the report are of particular interest or relevance to you, be sure to track down the original source and read/evaluate it for yourself to make your own judgements about the validity and reliability of the study, generalizability of findings, whether or not the conclusions drawn make sense, etc. With that in mind - here are some items from the report that I think deserve in-depth attention and further discussion.

The report describes that research in this area has consistently found a substantial decrease in the amount of time kids are engaging in free play. The key "takeaway" that everyone studying, teaching, caring for and working with kids needs to stop and think about = 46% of Canadian kids getting "3 hrs or less of active play each week." Three hours. Or less.

So, if the big finding here is the starling lack of "active play" kids are engaged in, of equal importance are the findings on where and when kids aren't playing. Outdoor play continues to decrease, down 14% in the past decade. According to one of the studies reviewed, "At lunch and after school, kids are getting only 24 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity out of a possible 4 hours" (the minimum recommended is 1 hr/day). Another study reveals that on weekends, when kids theoretically have the most amount of free time, they are actually "less active than on weekdays."

Although the report and organization both focus on physical activity, their analysis isn't limited to questions of fitness and exercise. Throughout the report, Active Kids Healthy Canada consistently stress that there some important distinctions between physical activity and active play, highlighting the unique attributes and importance of unstructured, child-driven play in particular. I especially appreciated this aspect of it, as an over-emphasis on "good" play = fitness is just another way of instrumentalizing kids' leisure. Anyway, the report defines play as:
"generally freely chosen, spontaneous, self-directed and fun.34-35 Play allows children and youth of all ages to try new things, test boundaries, learn from their mistakes and, perhaps most importantly, enjoy being active.
According to Mark Tremblay, director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, who was interviewed for the La Rose article, active play is the "overlooked sibling" of physical activity. He is cited in the article as saying:
"It doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to be equipment-intensive, it doesn’t have to be led by us, the parents or the playground supervisor or the coach or anyone. This is the business of childhood: let kids play or reduce the suppression of their natural desire to play.”
The report also stresses that "Not only is there value in this free time, it’s what kids want." One report showed that 92% of kids reported that they would chose playing with friends over watching tv. In another, global study, "playing with friends was the single favourite pastime of kids around the world." In addition, 74% of Canadian kids (grades 4 to 6) reported that they would like to do something active after school, while 31% would chose to play with friends at a playground. So if it's not a lack of interest on the kids' part, what's the issue?

Overprotective Parents
According to the report, the research indicates that over-structured leisure time and over-protective parenting are clearly part of the problem:
Unfortunately, over-protective parenting, plus the lure of ever-present technology, is driving kids into highly controlled environments, where they have little opportunity to let loose, run around, build, explore and interact with peers on their own terms.
This issue was also  covered in the La Rose article, who describes:
"A survey featured in the report reveals 82% of mothers cite safety concerns as reasons why they restrict outdoor play, such as worries about crime, traffic, outdoor darkness, lack of supervision and neighbourhood dangers like bullies and rundown buildings. In another poll, 58% of Canadian parents say they’re very concerned about keeping their kids safe and feel they have to be overprotective of them."
As one of my tweeps (@cogno) commented: "My fav line: "they feel they have to be overprotective of them". Isn't "overprotective" by definition too much?". Indeed!

This aspect of the report was the subject of a second, follow-up Globe & Mail article, written by Bauja and McGinn, bearing the headline: "Parental fear contributing to sedentary lifestyle of Canadian children: report." They interview Free-Range Kids author & trail blazer Lenore Skenzy, who makes the uncomfortably compelling point that "Your fear ... is putting your kid at risk of something far less dramatic, like obesity ... and something that’s more likely to happen than getting snatched off the street."

Indoor Play vs. Screen Time
Another facet of the AHKC report (and subsequent news reporting) warranting further discussion (not to mention one that gave me an initial cringe reaction) was the emphasis placed on screen time. My first thought was - here we go again, blaming the media for what is clearly a much larger problem, i.e. children's ever-decreasing access to leisure spaces...or at least, leisure spaces that aren't designed for, afford or are explicitly limited to sedentary activities.

The report describes that "63% of kids’ free time after school and on weekends is spent being sedentary," and that "seven hours and 48 minutes per day in front of screens, almost four times the guideline of no more than two hours per day." I'm a big fan of indoor play as well as outdoor play, but know that it isn't always all that fun or free. Homes have restrictions on who's allowed to do what where and when...and I'm wondering how much household rules, negotiation of space, etc., also contribute to the predominance that screen time seems to have taken in kids' indoor play lives.

Of course, screens and gadget do also offer pretty entertaining alternatives to other forms of indoor play. I'm reminded here of @davidgauntlett live tweeting a recent video-presentation by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi on creativity, who relayed the following: "In the past, Csikszentmihalyi says, childhood was boring, & you had to make your own solution to that problem. This was good thing." 

There is indeed plenty of research indicating that videogames and online environments are offering pretty appealing spaces for kids to congregate and play, where they can enjoy the "complete freedom of movement" (see Jenkins, 1999) once enjoyed by kids as they played in and explored their backyards and neighbourhoods, something that today's kids clearly no longer have access to. But it's also this very aspect of gaming and online exploration that makes it sound more like active play than something that is purely sedentary. I'm uncomfortable with many of the categorizations here, and very uncomfortable with the clumping together of all media/tech engagement as "screen time." Many of those benefits associated with active and/or free play are also associated with gaming, online creation and exploration, so the dichotomy doesn't really work for me. I'm also still dubious about this really being a cause...from kids' own reports and preferences, it sounds more like a provisional solution. That said, there is a lot in the report that I do like, not least of which is that it leaves a number of questions unanswered...the perfect context for further research and discussion. 

The AHKC also offers up some solutions as part of their report card, which I'm reproducing below because they include some pretty excellent points. But as mentioned above, I hope that this is the beginning of a renewed interest in supporting more opportunities for kids to play, and discussing some of the underlying, systematic barriers to play that have emerged over the past several decades...not just in terms of parental fears, but also in terms of playground closures, child-unfriendly public (and sometimes even domestic) spaces, funding cuts on gym classes and community events, shortened recesses, and the broader implications of hyper-risk-aversion on childhood as a whole. 

How to pRess plAy
Recommendations for increasing opportunities for active play  
[with my own italicized comments added in]

eARly yeARs 
> Provide access to safe, open areas,
either indoors or out, where kids
can move freely. 
> Add balls and toys to encourage
more vigorous play at home, and in
childcare and community settings. [Another study out this week on kids & creativity also points to the importance of having these types of objects available for kids to play with]
> Get down on the floor and play
with them!

sCHool-Age CHildRen 
> Provide access to fields, nature,
skipping ropes, balls and equipment
to facilitate active play. 
> To counter safety concerns, parents
and caregivers can take turns supervising kids at play in the park or on the block, encourage kids to play outside with a buddy and consider street-proofing courses. 
[SMG: not quite the "free range kids" approach, but one step closer, I suppose]

> Accept that tweens and teens need
free time to play without the assumption they are “up to no good.” [yes!!!]
> Increase youth-friendly play spaces
where youth can hang out and direct their own activities.

Kids of All Ages 
> If your child has no free time,
consider reducing the number of
scheduled activities. 
> To increase neighbourhood safety,
advocate for traffic-calming measures such as speed bumps and roundabouts, which have been shown to decrease pedestrian-vehicle accidents.
> To reduce screen time, encourage time spent outdoors, 
every day, instead of in front of TV or video games. [SMG = and here I really wish it said something like, "to diversify kids' play, encourage time spent outdoors...." instead of focusing on the old "all screen time is the same and equally bad" adage]

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