Dalhousie University researchers Michelle Stone and Daniel Stevens with their children Lily and Tommy. Photo: Contributed

Tarps, boxes, empty wrapping paper rolls, logs, buckets, old tires, pots, pans, snow.

Those may not sound like typical kids toys, but Michelle Stone and Daniel Stevens want families to embrace these and other “loose parts” and allow their children to integrate them into unstructured, so-called “risky” play.

The Dalhousie University researchers are embarking on a project with honours students to learn more about how the pandemic has impacted opportunities for Nova Scotia families to be active and support their children’s outdoor play. The hope is to also capture the voices and experiences of children during this time.

“We do know from other research and anecdotal reports that COVID has had a significant impact on children’s mental health and family mental health,” Stone, an assistant professor at Dalhousie’s School of Health and Human Performance, said in an interview.

“But is there a role for outdoor play in actually helping to promote mental health amongst kids and families?…I think it’s really valuable during this time to give them those opportunities to be creative and to direct their own play and have fun as a family.”

The pair say providing child-directed play experiences outdoors is even more important during these COVID times, when structured indoor activities aren’t an option and being outdoors is generally safer.

“We feel like we have to put our kids in a million scheduled activities to get benefits, and you don’t. They remember the times with families, having that unstructured play, being creative, making memories,” Stone said.

“I think we have a real opportunity now to bring that back. That’s what we are trying to do with our work and what a lot of our colleagues are trying to do, bring back that outdoor play, that unstructured play and movement.”

A national survey commissioned by ParticipACTION and led by Dalhousie University professor Sarah Moore earlier this year suggested childrens’ physical activity levels had plummeted as a result of the pandemic.

The results, as outlined in a July 14 Halifax Examiner article, suggested that only 2.6% of children between the ages of 5 and 17 were meeting the minimum recommended requirements for physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep. That was a steep drop from before the pandemic, when 15% of children were meeting those overall guidelines for optimal health.

Researchers at the time said they hoped the summer would serve as a “reboot.”

With winter weather now well on its way, Stone and Stevens are encouraging parents to embrace the season and find ways to engage in more unstructured outdoor play with their children. The couple, who are partners in life as well as research, have two young children of their own.

They say they actively practice what they preach.

“Our kids are pretty confident movers and I would say it’s because Dan and I have gotten to a comfort level where we feel comfortable enough to let them kind of figure out what they think they’re capable of,” Stone said.

“Obviously we have to step in at times and we’ll say it’s probably not a great idea that you’re climbing that high in the tree or trying to scale this rock wall. But you just have to move slowly, giving them the opportunity to to figure out what they’re capable of.”

Benefits of ‘risky play’

Although there’s a body of research demonstrating the importance of outdoor play on children’s development, the couple are also conducting research examining the potential benefits of loose parts, or “risky” play.

They describe this as the way kids “used to play.” Children work with moveable, manipulative parts found in the natural environment as well as a variety of manmade materials. These can range from acorns and sticks to buckets and old tires.

“When they’re used in combination, they permit a whole host of diverse kinds of play experiences. That’s the beauty of loose parts,” Stone said.

Stevens, an instructor in Dalhousie University’s School of Health and Human Performance, said this old-fashioned style of play also helps children develop their coordination, balance, agility, and problem solving skills.

“When they’re climbing up a tree they’re making these calculated decisions about which branches are safe and how do I get up there, I’ve got to put my foot up there and then maybe grab onto this,” he explained.

“It’s engaging and it’s challenging, and that’s what kids need. If something’s boring, they’re not going to stay with it for too long.”

Stevens said a dump of snow should never be seen as a barrier. Instead, he wants families to see it as the perfect opportunity for children to take loose parts outside and let their imaginations do the rest. From building forts to making snowball soup, the possibilities are endless.

“By the very definition, snow is a great loose part. It can be manipulated, you can build stuff with it, and what our kids do is they amalgamate the loose parts that we have into the snow,” he said.

“It’s very engaging, very stimulating, and an hour will pass in five minutes. It’s great fun for the parents to watch as well. You kind of get back into your own childhood, so it’s good fun.”

What about the element of risk?

The pair are frequently approached by parents interested in standing back and allowing their children to engage in more risky play, but they often don’t know where to begin and/or how to quell their own anxieties.

Stone said there’s a distinction between a risk and a hazard. She points to research suggesting that exposing children to manageable risks can actually make them safer in the long run. Children learn to negotiate and manage risks, thereby making better decisions that will help protect them in future and prevent injuries.

“If you don’t ever expose children to risks, then they’re not going to know how to negotiate those risks and they’re not going to learn how to make good decisions,” she said.

“It can actually be seen as a kind of injury prevention, exposing them to healthy risks. We’re talking about risk in a sense of providing a challenge, something that a child can kind of negotiate and has a sense to conquer.”

Stevens and Stone believe being forced to shift from structured indoor activities could prove to be a blessing in disguise for some families. They said many parents have benefitted from playing outside with their children, going for walks, building things, and not being rushed to attend numerous activities.

“I think what this pandemic has taught us is the value of our relationships and family time and building those memories,” Stone said.

“Your kids are probably not going to remember all the toys that you bought them on Christmas Day when they’re older, but they’re going to remember that you took those cardboard boxes and wrapping paper and pots and pans outside in the snow and you spent hours building snowmen and forts and whatever.”

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

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  1. Great piece. The researchers might want to check out findings, as relayed by J. P. Peterson (clinical psychologist and U of T. Professor), on the multiple benefits of “rough and tumble “play.

    Liked the distinction that was made between “risky play” and ‘ hazardous’ play.