By Francine Ferland, occupational therapist, professor emeritus at the University of Montreal, and author of books such as Et si on jouait?, Le jeu au cœur du développement de l’enfant, and Viens jouer dehors! (published by Les Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine).
Many parents are afraid to let their kids play outside; are these fears valid?
Let’s take a closer look at the perceived dangers that makes parents nervous.
Even in a safe environment, you can never guarantee that accidents won’t happen when kids play outside. As parents, we should aim to protect our kids while also granting them a certain amount of freedom. By overprotecting them, children don’t get the chance to learn to manage risks or to have typical experiences for their age.
The human digestive tract contains one kilogram of bacteria! A small percentage of these microscopic organisms are harmful, but many others actually strengthen the immune system. In 1989, it was proven that excessive personal cleanliness in young families increases the risk of asthma, eczema, and allergies, including hay fever. That’s why, instead of trying to keep their kids in a sterile bubble, parents should let them experience the real world.
With winter fast approaching, adults tend to limit the time children spend outside as soon as the mercury dips below zero. However, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society, children should be kept indoors only if the temperature or wind chill is – 27°C (-16°F) or colder. When it gets this cold, exposed skin can freeze. Otherwise, don’t hesitate to bundle up your kids and send them outside to play.
Fears passed on from parent to child
Sometimes, parents pass on their own fears to their kids. Here are a few tips on how to allow your little one to explore the world through the eyes of a child.
Mother Nature may be home to insects that bite and sting, but that’s no reason to keep your child from going outside. Try taking a few basic precautions, such as dressing your little one in light-colored clothing and using bug repellent. Remember that kids learn from their parents. So, if seeing a bug throws your child into panic, acting concerned will only make your child feel like there is a real danger.
A fear of animals, and of dogs in particular, is a common phobia. To avoid passing it on, showing children the right way to approach a dog is to first ask permission from the owner to pet the dog, let the dog smell your hand, and then finally pet its side.
Water activities call for a few safety precautions (flotation vests, adult supervision, etc.). But saying things such as, “Don’t get too close, it’s dangerous,” should be avoided to keep from transmitting a phobia of water.
Many parents worry about the lack of supervision when their kids are outside. So, at what age is it okay for children to play outside, go to the park, or cross the street by themselves? The answer depends not just on their age, but also on their level of maturity and where they live (city vs. suburbs). Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind.
Until about the age of 4, children should have adult supervision when they play outdoors. This is especially important if playtime involves a pool or takes place near a body of water or potentially poisonous plants.
Around age four, children can be outside on their own, as long as they are in an enclosed area. However, they still need to be checked on regularly. It’s also important to let children know exactly where they’re allowed to explore. Provided they stay within specific boundaries and are aware of any safety rules, it’s okay for them to play outside on their own.
Once children develop the ability to reason, at about the age of six or seven, they become better at assessing risks and distinguishing right from wrong. This means they also get better at following rules. They can start to play sports outside and walk home from school with a friend. When riding a bike, children under 10 should always be accompanied by a responsible adult.
Outside Free Play is an enriching experience that stimulates different areas of a child’s development and therefore fosters balanced growth. It builds a child’s motor skills (crawling, running, somersaulting, etc.), cognitive skills (exploring the natural world, inventing games, problem-solving, strategizing, etc.), emotional skills (self-confidence, autonomy, spontaneity, self-esteem, etc.), and social skills (building relationships, working as a team, sharing, etc.).
Lastly, Outside Free Play empowers children by allowing them to make decisions for themselves and by balancing out their predominantly sedentary routines.
 Corthier, G. (2011). Bonnes bactéries et bonne santé, produced in partnership with Danone Research and Nestlé. Éditions QUAE
Strachan, D.P. 1989. Hay fever, hygiene, and household size. British Medical Journal, 18; 299 (6710): 1259–1260.
“Des mesures de précaution pour les parents et les enfants pendant l’hiver” https://www.soinsdenosenfants.cps.ca/handouts/winter_safety, consulted on November 7, 2018.