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Surprise! Free Play is Safer than Sports or Hanging out at Home

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Read Time: 8 minutes

This post is reprinted (and gently edited) from a surprising article on LinkedIn that showed that free play is safer than sports — the adult-organized kind — or even hanging out at home. The author is Damien Puddle, a play advocate, PhD, and parkour promoter in New Zealand. (Yes, PUDDLE is his last name. Explaining, perhaps, the photo he chose below.)

NOTE: This is a long, wonky post, and some of the data is New Zealand-specific. But it mirrors the stats in the rest of the West and it makes a solid case. So feel free to ogle the graphs and absorb the big point: Free play is not riskier than other childhood activities. The opposite!

Is it safe to let children play outdoors?

by Damien Puddle

What is your favourite play memory from childhood?

What were you doing? Where were you? Who were you with?

If you’re a Millennial or older, there’s a good chance that memory involved you being outdoors, probably with friends or cousins, taking some kind of risk. In other words, you were having an adventure! But that type of experience is becoming rarer.

After all, it’s not safe to let children play unsupervised these days… or is it?

The fear that free play just isn’t safe.

Around the world, especially in Western countries, the three barriers parents tend to list for why they don’t let their children play outdoors by themselves are:

  • Injury fears
  • Road safety
  • Kidnapping

It’s the same three issues I hear in New Zealand too.

As a play advocate and an academic, I know the research that speaks to the innumerable benefits of play, the consequences of playlessness, the positive and negative impacts of adult involvement in children’s play, and societal/generational changes that have shaped (mostly negatively) the current status quo for play in our cities. I also know the international data that directly challenges these parental fears:

But free play is safer than sports, or riding in a car.

  • Injuries in outdoor play are less than organised sport
  • It’s more dangerous for children to be in a car than a pedestrian on the street
  • Kidnapping by strangers is as rare as the lottery

But that research is from Europe, Canada, and the US, and that always bugged me. We need New Zealand data…Is it safe to let children play outside here?

Of course, it is! Use some common sense. But read on if you want the numbers.

Injury fears? Think inside the house.

As injuries are the biggest reported risk for play, we’ll look at the NZ injury data.

ACC (New Zealand’s Accident Compensation Corporation) records data on injury claims, and following an information request I was able to get a very clear picture of injury rates for children and young people between 2007 and 2022.

Most injuries happen at home, followed by sport/recreation facilities, and then school. All places we’re happy to have our children because we perceive them as being safe. The irony is that the places we think are safe (and they are still relatively safe) are actually more dangerous than we perceive them to be.

If we start splitting out the sport/recreation data into playing via sport, or in public places, or on playgrounds, we see an even clearer picture. Injury claims in sport far outweigh injuries from playing in playgrounds and other public spaces regardless of age.

Older kids and teenagers play more organised sport, so we could assume that more sporting injuries occurs because less play occurs. I’ve also just been saying that kids experience less independent play these days, so we could expect sporting injury to be higher when organised participation is more common these days. However, even if it’s not as adventurous or independent as they would like, we should still assume that children still play or at least try to play, anywhere and everywhere.

Even for young kids, outdoor free play is safer than sports.

The graphs also show that even younger kids still get hurt more playing sport than outdoor play. The trend lines give us the picture that these statistics were likely the case prior to 2007 as well, and therefore not unique to the current generation. So, we can’t automatically assume less play injury occurs purely because less play occurs.

Importantly, although playing sport results in a substantially greater number of injuries than outdoor play, the benefits of participating in sport clearly outweigh the risks (because physical activity is amazing). With this being true for sport, it’s even more true for play.

Takeaway: Injury rates in play are significantly lower than they are in organised sport in New Zealand, and the benefits of sport already outweigh the risks. Let the children play outside.

Road safety vs. free play:

Parents regularly cite concerns about traffic dangers as to why they won’t let their children independently play outside the home, explore the neighbourhood, or use active transport to/from school. I share some of these concerns, acknowledging that my neighbourhood (indeed the whole city of Invercargill) privileges vehicles through wide roads, high numbers of parking spaces, few pedestrian crossings, and long wait times at signalised intersections.

However, if we highlight the earlier graph of injuries by location and highlight just the home and road-based data, it’s a pretty stark contrast.

The home is clearly more dangerous than being out on a road. But does it still make sense to drive our children instead of letting them walk and bike to school and for play purposes because of road safety fears?

The 15th report from the Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee shows that between 2015 and 2019, transport incidents were the second biggest killer (498 incidents) of 0–24-year-olds (suicide being the worst at 655) in New Zealand. But of the 498 transport incidents 64.5% were car occupants, vs 12.2% being pedestrians.

We could assume that if more 5–15-year-olds were allowed out for independent travel and play that there might be an increase in pedestrian-based transport fatalities. However, more childhood independence would also correspond with a decrease in vehicles on the road, so that isn’t a given.

Takeaway: It is more life-threatening for children to be passengers in a car than being a pedestrian (i.e., playing and exploring the neighbourhood). Let the children play outside.

Kidnapping?

New Zealand Police statistics do not record kidnappings as a unique crime, instead, crimes are aggregated under the category titled “Abduction, Harassment and Other Related Offences Against a Person”. This means we can’t directly pinpoint child (0-19 years old) kidnappings specifically. Nonetheless, here are the stats based on the aggregate data:

  • In this category, across all perpetrator and victim ages and relationships (i.e., strangers and persons known to the victim) makes up 3% of total crime. This is even less for children and young people, and even less for strangers. In other words, kidnappings are rare and more likely to be perpetrated by person’s known to the victim.
  • In this category, for 2022, specifically involving strangers (i.e., stranger-danger, the fear this is based off) there were 0 instances for 0–9-year-olds, 3 for 10–14-year-olds, and 4 for 15-19-year-olds.
  • If all 7 incidents were true examples of kidnapping (which they are unlikely to be), the odds of a child (0-19 years old) being kidnapped are 1:142,888. This is equivalent to 142,857 hours of outdoor time before the chance of kidnapping might occur. That’s equivalent to children being outside unsupervised 24/7 from their birth to age 16.

That’s obviously ridiculous though, so what about something more realistic such as average time actually spent outdoors?

  • Sport NZ’s Active NZ data shows an average of 11 hours of physical activity per week for children and young people between 2017-2019. If all of those 11 hours were spent in independent outdoor play then it would take 261 years before encountering a risk of kidnapping by a stranger.

Even with the most pessimistic outlook, these odds are stupefyingly low. It’s possible that none of the 7 instances recorded for 10–19-year-olds were kidnappings (e.g., they could have been harassment or other crimes). I also haven’t mentioned yet that there are cities and whole regions that also hadn’t recorded any instances across the reporting timeframe.

These stats also don’t take into account children’s skills at protecting themselves, that even when playing independently it is usually independent of caregivers but not of other children, and often in public places, nor the intervention by others to protect children should something go wrong, etc.

Takeaway: The odds of a stranger kidnapping a child whilst outdoors playing are uncomprehendingly low. Let your kids play outside.

Summary: In NZ and the Western world: Free play is safer than sports, staying home, or riding in a car.

The New Zealand data matches the international data:

  • New Zealand Children’s informal play injuries are lower than in organised sport (which we rightfully value and is normalised by society).
  • It’s more dangerous for New Zealand children to be at home than on the road, and when they are on the road children are killed and hurt more when they’re passengers in vehicles than as pedestrians.
  • The chances of a child in New Zealand being kidnapped by a stranger are so infinitesimally small it’s hard to comprehend.

Why we can’t ever eliminate all risk.

None of this denies that accidents and crime do sometimes happen, and our attempts to protect our children by limiting their outdoor play come from the best place in the world, but at what cost?

[Let Grow Co-founder] Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff say,

We believe that efforts to protect children from environmental hazards and vehicular accidents have been very good for children. Exposure to lead and cigarette smoke confer no benefits; being in a car crash without a seat belt does not make kids more resilient in future car crashes. But efforts to protect kids from risk by preventing them from gaining experience – such as walking to school, climbing a tree, or using sharp scissors – are different. Such protections come with costs, as kids miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment.

But it’s even bigger than that. Going into all the research on the benefits of play and the consequences of playlessness is a whole other article, but it’s worth highlighting one other piece of work that relates to the previous statistic of suicide being New Zealand’s number one youth killer. [Another Let Grow Co-founder] Professor Peter Gray, a psychology researcher, and his colleagues have made the case that increases in anxiety, depression, and suicide are linked to reduced play opportunities in childhood. The hard truth is that our fears are not based in reality, and denying children their playful independence comes at huge cost.

Let the children play outside!

Anyway, next time you’re talking about health and safety in outdoor play and parental fears associated with it, you can now point to the New Zealand data.


For the data cited, please visit the original piece, here.

And for a free implementation guide for schools to start a Let Grow Play Club, where kids get to do exactly this — free play — please click here! And, parents, please click here to get the free Let Grow Kid’s License!

Comments

  1. LonLon says:

    Maybe kids aren’t getting injured in public places because they aren’t there any more.

    • RachelRachel says:

      Yes, this is clearly true. You can even see the pandemic reflected in the numbers, as children’s presence in public places and group sports drops noticeably for those years. I I don’t know what the author’s PhD is in (not statistics, though, I don’t think) — his argument would be much more compelling if his statistics tool kit could adjust for this problem. I still think the case is pretty good, but I did already agree with his viewpoint, so that’s not saying much.

      • DamienDamien says:

        Yes, reduced injury in free play due to less free play occurring cannot be discounted. And yes, my PhD is not in statistics (sociology of sport – parkour). I’d love for this preliminary data to be taken, critiqued thoroughly and expanded into a much larger piece of research than I was able to achieve as a small side project.

        Some points to consider:
        – There is a sense in New Zealand that free play increased during the peak of the pandemic. If that’s accurate, why wasn’t there an increase in injury corresponding with the sport injury decline?
        – The accessible data only went back as far as 2007, but the trend lines suggest that the gaps between sport and the other categories remains, particularly for 10-18 yr olds. The 5-9 yr old case remains the most interesting as the injury rates fluctuate over time.
        – The anecdotal evidence surrounding free play vs organised sport suggests that there’s a big difference between how we move our bodies and the choices we make in competition when we might be trying to win vs in free play when that is less likely to be a goal. In parkour for instance, there is an assumption that people must get hurt constantly because it appears dangerous, but it’s actually more like an extension of children’s play than it is competitive sport, and injury rates do not appear to be higher than other forms of informal recreation.
        – There were also health and safety legislation reforms in 2015/16 in NZ that correlate to a dip in injury rates pre-Covid that I didn’t mentioned. It would be interested to investigate this and find out whether this had an impact on parental play perceptions.

        Thanks for engaging.

  2. CaryCary says:

    By the time I was in high school in the late 1960s, my family had moved sixteen (16!) times to cities and towns all over the western U.S. because of the profession my dad was in. I had gone to ten public schools before I graduated. The point is, I knew a lot of kids, and experienced a lot of places. I never knew of anyone who was kidnapped, or any kid who was killed or had a life-altering injury as a result of free play, and play was very, very free at that time. In all my adult-free wandering, helmetless bike riding on the road, tree and fence climbing, playing on construction sites, etc., etc., I never had anything worse than skinned knees, bruises, and sprained ankles. But then, in my early and late teens, I got involved in organized (Pop Warner) football, and organized, closely regulated motorcycle racing. During these activities, I ended up with a few concussions, two broken clavicles, a broken wrist, and a couple of busted fingers. I was a hell of a lot safer when I was a kid out doing my own thing!

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