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Children, safety and risky outdoor play

November 12, 2013
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For children, it’s the riskier outdoor play spaces – the empty lots, forests, beaches, and alleys – that are often the most interesting, imaginative and stimulating. That’s one of the key findings of a pilot project from Dr. Ian Pike and the BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit.

Researchers used a technique known as participatory photo mapping to find out how and where kids play. They gave cameras to two groups of 6 to 12 year-olds and asked them to take pictures and comment on the hazards and risks in their after-school outdoor play spaces. Families who took part in the study are from two low-income B.C. neighbourhoods, one in a rural area and the other in an urban city-centre.

The children told stories of adventurous play and said they didn’t want to tell their parents about dangerous experiences, revealing a tension between the risk and delight in playing outdoors. To see some of the children’s photos and read their comments, read "The Play Spaces Project: Exploring Children's Lived Experiences of Play Spaces through Participatory Photo-Mapping" on the BCRIPU website.

Injury is the leading cause of death and a leading cause of hospitalization for children and youth in Canada. Playgrounds and other outdoor play spaces are known to be areas where injuries frequently happen. Research has found that vulnerable children, those from low-income families, are at greater risk for injury due a range of factors including poorly-maintained playground equipment and less access to protective equipment such as helmets.

"We are concerned about preventing injuries to children at play, particularly serious, life-altering injuries. And, because we know that healthy child development includes some risk taking, the challenge for us in creating play spaces is to strike a balance between safety and age-appropriate risk exposure so that kids learn how to manage risks creatively without being hurt." says Dr. Pike, Director of the BCRIPU, and Associate Professor in Pediatrics at UBC.

This pilot project is part of the larger Play Spaces Project which includes a literature review; a survey of 107 parents, and recreation and municipal staff who work with vulnerable children; and an online course to train community members to inspect outdoor play spaces.

"The goal of our project was to hear from children about where they play and from parents, kids and caregivers about their safety concerns,” says Dr. Pike “By bringing these findings together with the leading research in this field, we are able to get a clearer picture of the range of factors that influence outdoor play. We also understand the need for more research to better understand child play in natural environments, as well as the role of social inequity on play space preferences."

The Play Spaces Project is part of the Public Health Agency of Canada's Active and Safe initiative. Full reports of the survey, literature review, and photo-mapping project are available on the BCIRPU website. "Managing Safe Play Spaces," the course developed in partnership with the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association and Parachute Canada, is available through the Canadian Playground Safety Institute.