Let children play outdoors in nature to get them to move more, sit less, play longer and learn limits, according to a new report card that assigns a grade of D minus to the physical activity levels of Canadian children and young people.

Participaction released its report card on Tuesday on physical activity levels of Canadians aged three to 17.

Overall, 70 per cent of children aged three to four get the recommended 180 minutes of daily activity of any intensity.

But for five- to 17-year-olds, only nine per cent get the 60 minutes of heart-pumping activity they need each day, the group said of its third consecutive annual D-minus grade.

We may be so focused on ensuring children stay healthy, safe and happy that we're having the opposite effect by overprotecting kids indoors, the report's authors said.

Participaction's new policy statement on active outdoor play recommends increasing children's opportunities for self-directed play outdoors at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.

The researchers said studies suggest that when children are outside, they are more likely to be physically active than when under parental supervision. Higher physical activity levels are associated with better physical and mental health. 

"Adults need to get out of the way and let kids play," the report's authors said.

Active games and independent play allow children to test boundaries, such as by exploring the woods, roughhousing or playing at heights.

In play, risk doesn't mean courting danger, such as skating on a half-frozen lake or sending a preschooler to the park alone, the researchers said. They said it's about giving the children to decide how high to climb, get dirty, wander in their neighbourhoods and tumble, for example, to build confidence, develop skills and learn their own limits.

Outdoor play is safer than thought. The odds of total stranger abduction are about one in 14 million, the group said, citing RCMP reports. Similarly, most injuries associated with outdoor play are minor.

Physical activity of kids CP graphic June 2015

(Canadian Press)

"We need to give kids the freedom to occasionally scrape a knee or twist an ankle."

The report also looked at behaviours, settings, or "influencers" that contribute to physical activity and assigned grades to a number of them:

  • D– for sedentary behaviours.
  • D for active transportation.
  • C+ for school.
  • C+ for families and peers.
  • B– for organized sport and physical activity participation.
  • B– for government.
  • B+ for community and environment.
  • A– for non-government.

The position statement also includes recommendations for school and child-care administrators, health professionals, injury prevention professionals, media, attorneys general, governments and society at large.

The authors point to counterproductive policies, such as shorter, safer monkey bars or bans on playing ball in the schoolyard.

The report was developed by the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute (HALO-CHEO), Participaction and a group of 14 other organizations.