It’s heartbreaking to see your child crying, bleeding from a scraped knee. While it may be tempting to “bubble wrap” your child to keep them safe from potential injury, it’s crucial for their healthy development and well-being to get outside and explore. Studies have shown that outdoor play affords many benefits to children, including better physical and mental health and psychosocial benefits.
Through play, children learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, follow the rules, and regulate emotions. In addition, play helps children develop their bodies and minds, inspire creativity, foster relationships with peers, and discover new interests.
As a parent, you’ll want to ensure your child can take risks when playing outside without encountering hazards. What do I mean by that?
A hazard is an item or situation where the source of harm isn’t apparent to your child. For example, if a bridge railing is broken, or a slide set isn’t properly fixed to the ground and could fall over when used. As a parent, you need to look for hazards and either fix or steer your child away from them.
A risk is a situation where your child can recognize and evaluate the challenge and decide on a course of action: they’ll climb the first few branches of the tree or find a path of stones across a brook.
Risk changes over time as your child moves through developmental milestones and gains more experience with the world. What’s risky at one age becomes no risk or minimal risk when your child is older. “Risky outdoor play” for a toddler could be hiding behind a bush, with mom or dad on the other side.
When your child plays outdoors, they move more and sit less, especially when they’re allowed to play independently in their neighbourhood. This helps your child learn how to get around, gain independence, and spend more time playing with friends.
Play in natural environments can be especially beneficial because it’s full of loose materials (e.g., sand, sticks, water, mud) that your child can use to let their imagination and creativity shape play and help them appreciate nature.
The likelihood of serious injury resulting from play is low, and the benefits of playing outside generally far outweigh the risks.
But what about “stranger danger”? How can I let my child out of my sight? The cases of child abductions by strangers in Canada do happen but are incredibly rare. For your child’s physical and mental health, encourage them to play outside when possible, and travel in their neighbourhood by walking or biking once they have the skills and experience to do so safely.
Maybe your child will scrape a knee. But the scrape will heal, and the other benefits of outdoor play will stay with your child for the rest of their life.
President and CEO of Parachute, Canada’s national charity dedicated to injury prevention