Kids don’t need bubble wrap

Logo from the Wakaw Recorder website,

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder

Running free, taking chances, and even getting hurt are essential to healthy childhood development, says a new study from the Canadian Paediatric Society.

Climbing a tree, tobogganing, or rough-and-tumble play are all outdoor activities that children should be encouraged to do to promote health, the Canadian Paediatric Society says in the new guidance released on January 25th.

Dr. Suzanne Beno, one of the authors of the guideline, said it’s important to distinguish risk from hazard. Risk does not have to be unsafe actions.

“There may be a risk towards climbing to the top of the play structure or climbing a tree,” Beno said. “As long as it’s thrilling and exciting for that child, that’s actually risky play, as they’re figuring out how much they can do.”

Some of the common elements of risky play include: playing at height (climbing, jumping, or balancing); playing at speed (cycling fast, sledding, running); being near water or fire; supervised play using tools; and possibly the most difficult one for parents and caregivers is risk in getting lost (exploring play spaces, neighbourhoods or woods without adult supervision, or in the case of young children, hiding behind bushes with limited supervision).

The current era of child-rearing is one of limiting risk-taking by children, which stemmed from the perceived need to keep them safe at all times and prevent all injuries instead of just serious and fatal ones. Social media is filled with posts created by adults over a certain age, bemoaning the banning of childhood games of yesteryear because they are not “safe,” such as dodgeball, tetherball, and ante-I-over.

Schools and playgrounds ban classic childhood games because some child somewhere got hurt and fear of litigation results in a decision to remove equipment and forbid the activity. That solution fails to consider the important outcomes children achieve through playing those “risky” games. Unstructured outdoor play is important for both the physical and mental health of children.

Outdoor unstructured play, or free play, is essentially child-driven play in an environment that contains open air and nature (earth/dirt, water, bugs, birds, and other creatures). The self-driven component of this unstructured play translates to the development of a child’s confidence, independence, and resiliency. Free play is also a highly accessible way for all children and people to access the benefits of being outside with no requirements and no barriers. It creates a non-competitive environment where outdoor play can be whatever one chooses, and not what someone else is guiding or prescribing. For the quiet child who prefers to draw, unstructured time allows them to reap the benefits of drawing in nature, all the while also providing the boisterous child who likes to climb an opportunity to challenge themselves.

According to the 2020 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, Canadian children and youth rate only an F for active play, due to the fact that only 21% of 5- to 11-year-olds engage in active play and non-organized or unstructured leisure for more than 1.5 hours per day, on average. This represents a decline from a D assigned in 2018. Over the last few decades, kids have gradually increased the amount of time spent indoors, often on screens, as unscheduled free play outside gave way to planned activities. 

Amid rising obesity, anxiety, and behavioural issues, and fewer children meeting physical activity recommendations, a return to unscheduled outdoor play for preschool children could play a role in changing the trend. Providing ample outdoor play during care hours, early childhood educators can lead the way by introducing children to the great vessel of exploration that outdoor play can be.

A requirement for outdoor time is mandated for all licensed childcare facilities in Saskatchewan and the return to outdoor play is a growing practice in early childhood communities across the world, from forest nursery schools in the United Kingdom to nature childcares, and forest preschools here in Canada. While unstructured outdoor play is not a new concept, there is a growing body of evidence that a return to ways that seemed long forgotten, will help children both mentally and physically by providing endless opportunities to slow down, observe,  inquire, or speed up, run, and be active.

The website, Community Playthings, is an online store for daycare centres and preschools, but has in its Resources section, over 300 articles and literature geared toward early childhood educators, that would also be of interest to parents. In a 2021 article, Encouraging Risk Taking, the author Peter Pizzolongo, writes that by being encouraged to take safe risks, children learn to judge what they are capable of doing and match that with activities that have an element of risk.

“Children think about how high they can climb, from what height they can jump, and so on. They might find that what they were attempting is not possible and use problem-solving skills to try an alternative. These children are developing and using resilience; they will determine what they need to do to succeed or decide to abandon the task.” (

The ability to calculate and take risks supports children’s learning in many ways. Taking risks develops and enhances a child’s self-confidence and ability to manage and overcome fear. Risk-taking promotes the kind of play that involves children’s use of problem-solving skills and the higher-order thinking skills of application and synthesis, which involve taking what the child knows and applying it to new situations, thereby helping them to reflect, “What helped me to succeed at that activity,” or, if the experience did not end the way the child thought it would, “What caused this failure?”

Taking safe risks while building physical skills is an important component of development and learning for young children. Dr. Suzanne Beno, as part of the Canadian Paediatric Society guidelines, suggests adults in a child’s life switch from constant cautions to “be careful” when a child is in a physically risky situation, which youngsters may conceptualize as “you don’t trust me”, to questions such as: “Do you see how high you are?” or “How are you feeling?” Rusty Keeler, in his 2020 book, Adventures in Risky Play: What Is Your Yes?, states, “Risk is good. . . . Risk is a natural part of life. In fact, learning to assess risk and deciding if you want to take a risk are essential skills for living.”

Possibly the best conclusion to an article encouraging adults to let children experience safe risks can be found in another article that was written in 2017 by Angela Hanscom. Titled Remove the Bubble Wrap: Why Over-Protection Hinders Healthy Child Development, Hanscom states that children are naturally curious and seek out opportunities to make sense of the world. When children are left to their own devices, they experiment with their surroundings, take risks, make mistakes, and then learn from the mistakes. They problem-solve, negotiate, imagine, and investigate. Children learn an immense amount of information through active free play outdoors.