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Letting your kids play: do we need to overcome the precious parent/advocate syndrome?

Croakey regularly features a “must read” article from the JournalWatch service of The Public Health Advocacy Institute WA.

This month’s is particularly timely, following the release of the inaugural Active Healthy Kids Australia Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth.

The report card delivered Australian children a D minus, finding that 80 per cent of children aged 5 to 17 years old are not meeting physical activity guidelines of at least 60 minutes of exercise each day – putting us amongst the worst in the world for overall physical activity levels.

With that in mind, this month’s JournalWatch article looks at children’s play, and whether an emphasis on safe environments – including by public health advocates – is actually limiting the benefits.

***

Dr Melissa Stoneham writes:

Recently I was looking for a gift for my husband.

I browsed through many of my usual haunts and finally ended up in a good old fashioned book store. I could spend hours in a book shop and this expedition was no different. Eventually I found my gift – a copy of a book called The Dangerous Book for Boys.

Apparently this book was on the UK’s bestselling list for over 9 months and it includes a range of activities that boys should embark on rather than spending aimless hours in front of a computer screen….not that my husband does that in his down time.

As I scanned through the book, I saw well-illustrated explanations of the natural world, rules for almost every outdoor sport (and poker), how to make a periscope, a trip wire and invisible ink…and the list goes on.

Clearly I did not buy this book to encourage my husband to sneakily place a tripwire into the bedroom, but more as a testament to the generalised longing for play’s good old days.

Which brings me to the topic of our latest review for JournalWatch – an article published in the International Health Promotion Journal titled Playing for health? Revisiting health promotion to examine the emerging public health position on children’s play.

The author Dr Stephanie Alexander from the University of Montreal is concerned over dwindling play opportunities for children.

In essence she argues there is potential concern that play which has a focus on being physically active and explicitly controlled for risk, can curtail some of the richness in children’s play experiences, as well as the social and emotional elements of health and well-being to which less goal-directed and regulated play can contribute.

Play is important in so many ways. It allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development and allows children at a very early age to engage and interact in the world around them.

Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers.

Play also helps kids to develop new competencies that promote confidence and resilience – in fact play is so important, it has been recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.

As one of seven kids, I grew up playing outdoors – not with dolls or cars, but with nature and existing streetscapes. I used my imagination and yes, sometimes I got hurt. I climbed trees, rode my brothers’ bikes, made cubby houses and explored the local creek – often only coming home when sun was going down.

Play was a simple joy that I cherished as part of my childhood. As I reflect on my parental duties today, I see a change. I still encourage my kids to play every day but I spend a lot more time than my mother did, driving my kids to swimming squad, netball or hockey, organising play dates or simply hanging out with them at home. It is difficult to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation.

As public health advocates, we often suggest play as a way to prevent obesity and promote movement, but we also emphasise safe environments. Alexander argues that when the primary focus of public health rests on the physical benefits of play, the social, psychological and emotional components of health, to which play also contributes, tend to be neglected.

She also states that public health organisations are overly concerned with the perceived risks involved in children’s play, and respond to parental concerns about play and risks by developing interventions to ensure and facilitate outdoor activities for children that are perceived as safe. Although Alexander is not criticising public health attempts to promote play, she does propose that the over-emphasis on risk avoidance and safety standardisation may contribute to the over-regulation of childhood by placing limits on the ways in which children play.

So what should public health advocates do in this space?

Maybe we should advocate for playgrounds that have an element of surprise, rather than the sterile and lack lustre playgrounds you see so often in public parks.

Another option is to promote nature play –a growing movement in Australia which started in Western Australia in 2010 and has now sprouted in at least three other Australian states.

Or possibly another policy document such as the Charter for Children’s Play produced by Play England? This document sets out a vision for play and describes it as ‘what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way, and for their own reasons’ and describes play as ‘what children and young people do when they are not being told what to do by adults’.

How about more initiatives such as the Tinkering School Camp, which operates on three basic principles that kids are more capable than they know, that freedom is the ability to fail and things can be done bigger and bolder.

And finally, I think there is a role for parents to simply let their kids play. Life is full of risks and sometimes you just have to let your children fall out of a tree so they can figure out how to climb one the right way.

Article: Playing for health? Revisiting health promotion to examine the emerging public health position on children’s play. Stephane Alexander, Katherine Frohlich and Caroline Fusco; Health Promotion International; 2014; 29(1): 155-164.

About JournalWatch

The Public Health Advocacy Institute WA (PHAIWA) JournalWatch service reviews 10 key public health journals on a monthly basis, providing a précis of articles that highlight key public health and advocacy related findings, with an emphasis on findings that can be readily translated into policy or practice.

The Journals reviewed include:

Australian & New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH)

Journal of Public Health Policy (JPHP)

Health Promotion Journal of Australia (HPJA)

Medical Journal of Australia (MJA)

The Lancet

Journal for Water Sanitation and Hygiene Development

Tobacco Control (TC)

American Journal of Public Health (AMJPH)

Health Promotion International (HPI)

American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM)

These reviews are then emailed to all JournalWatch subscribers and are placed on the PHAIWA website. To subscribe click to Journal Watch click here.

 

 

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