Don't overengineer kids' spontaneous play, children's organizations say

Today, many kids are so overscheduled or tied to their electronic devices, researchers say, that they are less likely than previous generations to spend time in spontaneous, unplanned play.

Kids can be so overscheduled that they forget about spontaneous play, researchers say

Camp U of T participants Nathan Arasakrishnan, 10, Lauren Altomare, 10 and Micol Altomare, 11, talk about their experiences with spontaneous play. (Mary Wiens/CBC)

Hanging from a tree, skipping stones and learning to ride a bike with no hands are the kinds of things many of us learned to do as kids during long summers that seemed to last forever.

Today, many kids are so overscheduled or tied to their electronic devices, researchers say, that they are less likely than previous generations to spend time in spontaneous, unplanned play.

In fact, that’s why national non-profit ParticipACTION came up with a list of unstructured activities they say every child should do before the age of 12

24 things every Canadian child should do before the age of 12

1. Experience total weightlessness at the top of a swing
2. Skip stones across water 
3. Play leap frog
4. Hang upside down from a tree limb
5. Jump into water cold enough that it almost takes their breath away 
6. Throw rocks or snowballs at a post from a distance until they get a bulls eye 
7. Ride a bike with no hands
8. Paddle a canoe
9. Piggyback someone
10. Roll down a big hill 
11. Try a sport that requires a helmet
12. Collect something in a forest
13. Make up a dance routine
14. Slide down something on a piece of cardboard
15. Build a fort
16. Hike somewhere for a picnic
17. Bury someone they love in the sand
18. Play outside in the rain
19. Jump in a pile of leaves
20. Make a snow angel
21. Fly a kite 
22. Create an obstacle course
23. Swim in a lake or an ocean
24. Make up a game involving a ball

Source: ParticipACTION

It's back to school for most kids this week, but ParticipACTION's list of unstructured activities is applicable all year long, and especially as kids return to their heavily scheduled routines in the school year. 

Katherine Janson, a spokesperson for ParticipACTION, says developed countries depend too much on schools and programs for “play infrastructure” rather than the spontaneous play that tends to happen in less developed countries. 

In a study from the national charitable research organization Active Healthy Kids Canada, researchers said that children in countries like Mozambique, Kenya and Nigeria scored the highest marks for active play and overall physical activity, while children in wealthier countries such as Canada, Australia, Ireland, the U.S. and Scotland ranked near the bottom.

The study says that Canadian parents have “engineered opportunities for spontaneous movement (such as getting to places on foot and playing outdoors) out of our kids’ daily lives, and have tried to compensate with organized activities such as dance recitals, soccer leagues and PE classes rather than being given the time to walk to school or to the store.”

Letting kids be creative, brave

Camp U of T, part of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto, offers programs aimed at promoting a healthy, active lifestyle among its young campers.

“It's important that our children are put in situations where they have to become creative thinkers, take risks, problem-solve,” says camp co-ordinator Jordan Frost. “And be brave, absolutely.”

Frost says some of the kids he sees at the camp are less active than he remembers being as a child. He says children need experiences that take them out of their comfort zone — the kind of play that is more likely to happen outside of organized activities, when children are left to devise their own games.

Campers talk about spontaneous play

"I've created an obstacle course in my backyard. My deck is about a metre off the ground. To start, you jump off that, and then you run around my shed three times. And then you have to run away from my dog while she tries to chase you and making you trip." 

- Nathan Arasakrishnan, 10

"Once at my friend's cottage, my sister and I decided to go look for an acorn in the forest, and at one point I think we got lost. My sister before we left collected a bunch of stones that would stand out, and she made a trail so we would know when we got back."

- Lauren Altomare, 10

"I have experienced total weightlessness at the top of a swing, hung upside down from a tree limb. I could see the whole park upside down, the feeling of like, a bit scared and happy."

Micol Altomare, 11

"I remember a lot of things from this list. I can do a canoe one as well. Me and my friend were in a canoe when we were 11, I'm going to say. We were quite strong canoeers and we got into white water rapids, but we were definitely not trained to. So we hit a huge rock and we were stuck and we were actually backwards, so after staying there and debating  for a few minutes which felt like hours, we pushed off and we went backwards for most of the way and we somehow managed to turn that canoe around. I have no idea how we did it, but I'm so happy we did it. It was scary, it was thrilling, we were nervous but it was also one of my favourite moments of my childhood.

Those moments, as a camp counsellor and a physical educator, it's important that our children are put in situations where they have have to become creative thinkers, take risks, problem-solve."

- Jordan Frost, 23, Camp U of T co-ordinator


Mary Wiens

Journalist/ Producer | Metro Morning

Mary Wiens is a veteran broadcaster and a regular on Metro Morning. Her wide-ranging beat includes stories that are sometimes tragic, often funny, occasionally profound and always human. Work that is often honoured with RTDNA awards (The Association of Electronic Journalists). One of her favourite places - Yonge Street. "It's the heart and soul of Toronto," says Wiens. "Toronto's Main Street!"