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Playing outside until the street lights came on. Sprinklers, merry-go-rounds, and endless neighbourhood bike rides. No computer or internet. Family board game nights, making sandcastles in the park, picnics, and a seemingly endless supply of Popsicles and Kool-Aid.

These are just a few hallmarks of my 1980’s summers.

As children wrap up another pandemic school year, one Halifax researcher is asking parents to consider giving kids a small taste of that era as we roll into those lazy, hazy days.

“Now we don’t necessarily want to return to all of the 1980s, I’m sure, but certainly we know that there are a ton of benefits to that idea of being able to have children go out and lead their own play,” Dalhousie University researcher Sarah Moore said in an interview.

“We know that kids who are independently mobile have a higher likelihood to increase confidence and self-esteem as well as social skills. The kids haven’t had that opportunity for almost two years now, so maybe this summer is an opportunity for us to just jump in and to do that.”

Dalhousie University professor and researcher Sarah Moore. Photo: Contributed

Moore led a national survey last July (reported here) that showed children’s activity levels had plummeted during the pandemic. Only 2.6% of children between the ages of five and 17 were meeting the minimum recommended requirements for physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and sleep as outlined in the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth.

This was a steep drop from the 15% who were meeting those overall guidelines for optimal health before the pandemic hit.

Moore said by October of 2020 that number had crept up to 3.1%., and the latest data shows 5.2% of children are now meeting those minimum requirements.

Although we’re moving in the right direction, we still have a long way to go, and Moore encourages families to “reimagine” how to incorporate play, activity, sedentary time, sleep, and other important health behaviours into their daily lives.

“The pandemic has been quite traumatic for children and families in many ways, and so I think we’re trying to promote and preserve child health across the pandemic and into the recovery,” she said.

With 95% of Canadian children still not spending enough time on activities known to bring physical and mental health benefits, Moore said it’s become even more important for families to turn to physical activity and outdoor play.

“I don’t think it is going back to what we were doing (pre-pandemic). I’m not sure if that was working all that well,” Moore said. “It wasn’t working for our family where we were just feeling overprescribed to activities.”

‘We’ve remembered how much fun we have together’

In the absence of organized sports and activities due to lockdowns, many families have reported engaging in regular leisure habits like walking and hiking during the pandemic.

Nicole Hartnell is a mother of five children ranging in age from eight to 16. The Fall River resident said having such a large family meant that before the pandemic each child was only enrolled in one activity.

Fall River resident Nicole Hartnell and her family. Photo: Contributed

But with four competitive level hockey players and one competitive soccer player, the family’s schedule was still exhausting.

Hartnell described it as “a bit of a reprieve” when the pandemic hit and everything came to a grinding halt.

“Shutting things down gave us the opportunity to really just reconnect as a family. My kids got closer, we all just stopped being ships passing in the night,” Hartnell recalled.

“We played family board games and we went for walks together and we just started spending time together as opposed to simply rushing from activity to activity all the time.”

Although she expects life will get busier with the return of regular activities and schedules, Hartnell said those family-centred activities they rediscovered during the pandemic will continue.

“It’s almost like we’ve remembered how much fun we have together. Not that we didn’t have fun together before, but there just was no time. It wasn’t a priority,” Hartnell said.

“Now that we’ve kind of had a taste of that again, it has definitely become more of a priority so we will do things more consistently like games nights. Now we do much more after dinner. So instead of everyone going their separate ways, we might take a family walk or do things like that.”

Make room for small ‘snacks’ of physical activity

While she supports organized play and sports and the many benefits they bring to children’s lives, Moore said the pandemic highlighted how difficult it can be for families when organized programs, activities, and facilities are shut down.

“As much as we would like to think that this is behind us, I think that our larger goal is around pandemic preparation or opportunities to increase health during events that might lock us down,” Moore said.

She adds that in preparation for future events, government officials and implemented policies must balance virus transmission with people’s physical and mental health. She points to the expansion of greenways and the closure of streets to allow for greater physical distancing and activity throughout the pandemic as beneficial and supportive initiatives.

“This is also a larger responsibility of our public health officials, our governments, and the way that we build our neighbourhoods and environments to be able to support this type of this type of play,” Moore said.

By creating pockets of unstructured play and daily physical activity into their daily lives now, Moore believes families will be better prepared for any future lockdown or urgent situation that leads to the cancellation of organized activities.

“Even if those other opportunities are cut off, you’ll still know how to do those other things,” she said. “It’s about preparing yourself by feeling comfortable with those types of opportunities you’re starting to to engage in throughout your day.”

With many families enrolling their children in multiple programmed summer activities — often out of necessity — Moore’s urging them to also make room for small “snapshots” or “snacks” of unstructured play throughout the summer. The goal, she said, is to encourage lifelong engagement in physical activity.

It turns out five extra minutes of unstructured play, ideally five times per day when possible, can help achieve that.

“It’s not just ‘Let your kids go and play 10 hours a day and then you’ll be fine.’ If you’re even able to carve out tiny pieces, that can be really helpful,” she said.

Introducing those morsels into everyday life can be as simple as walking the dog around the block after dinner or throwing recycling boxes in the backyard and letting your kids play with them while you send a few work emails. It’s going for a neighbourhood walk before bedtime, or grabbing a blanket and having lunch outside on the weekend.

Moore said the overarching message is it doesn’t have to be complicated and requires no equipment.

“I don’t want to say it’s as easy as it was in the 1980s by any means because more families had a parent staying at home,” Moore said.

“But certainly that idea of bringing us back to a time when as parents we’re feeling comfortable and confident letting our child lead and make decisions around their play and movement, and across the summer what did that look like?”

It also means encouraging active transportation and establishing healthy habits that are more likely to be lifelong. If kids ride their bikes to school, they’re more likely to ride to work. If a parent parks further away from the grocery store or school to encourage a short walk, that may carry on into adulthood.

Parents need to lose the guilt

Moore said research also highlights the importance of ensuring parents are supported to allow this kind of play, and she stressed that parents need to “erase the guilt.”

“We’re all living in a pandemic and you may or may not have had the same opportunities to engage in healthy behaviours during the pandemic and that’s completely understandable,” Moore said.

“I think going into this summer — and I like to hope that we’re starting the recovery from COVID-19 — there are opportunities for families to be able to engage in play and to be able to engage in physical activity.”

Moore said in one of her pandemic studies focused on children with disabilities, between 17% and 24% of parents reported a decline in their child’s physical or mental health.

While some may consider studying physical activity during the pandemic trivial, Moore said it’s critical for our mental and physical health and overall well-being.

“If we start to see declines in physical activity, we know that physical and mental health isn’t far behind,” Moore explained.

“So we need to do whatever we can in order to create opportunities for kids, to be able to build their mental health and physical health. And play, recreation, leisure are certainly ways to do that.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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