Outdoor play essential for kids, so get them out there

For Mark Tremblay,  the worst punishment he ever got as a kid was a good grounding.

"[It] meant you had to stay indoors. And isn't that very telling?" says Tremblay, a father of four and the director of healthy active living and obesity research at CHEO.

"Today, if you told your kids they had to stay indoors they'd shrug their shoulders."

Tremblay, who's also the chair of Outdoor Play Canada, is taking part in this year's Breath of Fresh Air Outdoor Play Summit, which gets underway Friday in Ottawa.

The two-day "national forum on outdoor play" will feature workshops, lectures and panel discussions involving experts in the field, according to the summit's website.

It takes place at the Ottawa Forest and Nature School and at Wesley Clover Parks Campground.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Physical, social, emotional benefits

Tremblay said parents — often with the best intentions — tend to keep their children inside with music lessons and unlimited digital media use.

Even active families rarely allow for unstructured outdoor time, he said. And when you add in fears around kids being outdoors after dark, there's little time for them to just be kids.

"Lack of calibration with natural instincts and natural play desires is seriously affecting the health of our children — socially, emotionally, mentally, physically," said Tremblay.

Fortunately, the remedy is easy and inexpensive, Tremblay said — and the benefits are immediate.

"If you put children, or youth, or you or me outside, we will be more active than if we're inside. Even if there was no intent to be active, it will happen. Every research study that's ever been published shows that. Lots of Canadian data shows that," he said.

"We're breathing fresh air instead of the stale, contaminated air indoors. We're not as exposed to infectious diseases which contain themselves indoors ... all of this good stuff just happens. It doesn't cost anything. You just need to go out."

'Green agenda'

Ottawa-based Children and Nature Alliance of Canada is also helping to organize this weekend's summit. 

Operations director Heather Wilson thinks it's also important to tie a renewed interest in outdoor play to the "green agenda."

"We're really happy this summit is happening this weekend because we see a direct connection with the youth-led movement, with the current climate change crisis, and the activities this weekend around that," Wilson said.

"And it's really helping to connect youth and children and families with the natural world."

Wilson thinks schools also have a role to play, pointing to a project called "Nearby Nature" they run in conjunction with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board.

"That's to encourage educators in the schools to look at ways they can engage their students outside," said Wilson.