Health & Wellness: Free play is crucial to our children’s health

By Dr. Karen Palayew

Physical activity, in its various forms, is known to be important for both our bodies and our brains. Organized sports and free play each provide very different but equally important benefits to our overall health and well-being.

Organized sports are valuable in that they integrate physical activity into children’s day-to-day lives, hopefully helping them avoid many age- and weight-related health issues in adulthood. In addition, following rules and the intricacy of a sport alongside peers encourages children to learn self-discipline, the value of teamwork, and strengthens their social skills. It helps them learn about and manage disappointment and failure and the importance of being a part of something greater than themselves, without simply focusing on the win.

And then there is free play, which is defined as “unstructured, voluntary, self-initiated activity that allows children to develop their imaginations while exploring and experiencing the world around them. It is the spontaneous play that comes from children’s natural curiosity, love of discovery and enthusiasm.”

My childhood memories of growing up in the 1960s include rolling up hills, free skiing, outdoor hide-and-seek, exploring the beaches and dunes of Cape Cod and trail running in the woods. I shared these experiences with my brothers and my friends, often with parents at a distance.

But, times have changed. Scientists are telling us that we – as parents, as a community, as a society – have watched and perhaps facilitated the pendulum in swinging too far from allowing our children to learn from and experience the sheer joy of free play. Often, this is discouraged for fear of children getting hurt, although studies have shown that engaging in risk is an important factor in preventing injuries. There is also an (understandable) inherent concern on the part of parents with respect to safety and vulnerability of children being outside unsupervised.

However, free play is believed to be crucial to our children’s psychological health. It provides an outlet for their creativity and allows them to interact with the world around them on their own terms. It gives children the opportunity to explore outdoors and connect to nature. Free play has been shown to have significant benefits in terms of developing social skills, emotional regulation and executive functioning – including memory, attention, planning, reasoning, problem-solving and impulse control. It encourages children to connect with one another, to resolve conflict, and helps them develop empathy, compassion, trust and resilience.

Both organized sports and free play can help support children’s mental health. Physical activity promotes positive feelings and self-esteem. It helps to reduce depressive symptoms and decreases feelings of stress and anxiety.

In 2018, a comprehensive assessment of child and youth physical activity in Canada was presented in the ParticipACTION Report. Important findings included that only 35 per cent of five- to 17-year-olds and 62 per cent of three- and four-year-olds are reaching their recommended daily physical activity level. In addition, it revealed that 51 per cent of five- to 17-year-olds and 76 per cent of three- and four-year-olds are engaging in more screen time than is recommended by the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for recreational screen-based sedentary behaviours.

As a physician, I feel an obligation to work alongside and guide families to ensure the optimal growth and development of children under my care. My overriding belief lies in the importance of creating a balance of activities for our children. Teaching them healthy habits early on in life – whether it be in relation to their diet, sleep, physical activity or behaviour – sets the foundation for how they will continue to lead their lives into adulthood.

After a long and challenging winter, I wish everyone a healthy and active spring. Enjoy and engage in the outdoors with all forms of activity and embrace the beauty of nature in and around our amazing city.