Opinion

It's time to stop giving the message that kids can't play outside

Guidance around outdoor exercise has principally been for adults while children’s need for outdoor activity seems to have been neglected altogether 

Wendy Glauser is a health and science writer, and a parent of two, in Toronto.

For almost two months now, the primary public health message across Canada, and especially in Ontario, has been “stay home.” In cities, exercise outside is allowed, ideally in quiet areas at off-peak times, but not exactly encouraged. Guidance around outdoor exercise has principally been for adults. As the provincial chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, put it, the rules shouldn’t stop “anyone from going out for their morning jog.” Children’s need for outdoor activity seems to have been neglected altogether. 

Cities, including Ottawa, have passed rules for some parks that allow people to walk on pathways through the green space, the way adults do, but not run around off trail, the way children do. In response to those wondering if they could walk outside, one emergency physician said: “As long as you’re very confident you can keep 6+ feet from others, consider it.” That confidence is shaky in highly populated parts of cities, especially for parents of young kids, who often veer off and run ahead. Even when families are far away from others, they’ve been ticketed under new COVID by-laws. In Oakville, a father was fined $880 for rollerblading in an empty parking lot with his kids. In Ottawa, a teenager playing basketball by himself was charged. 

The rules and the messages have understandably given parents the idea that outdoor play is off limits. Two moms I know who live near me in downtown Toronto, both in buildings, have told me they’ve only taken their preschool- and school-aged kids out a couple of times during the lockdown. According to the posts I’ve read on local online parent groups, many others are making the same decision. One parent fortunate enough to have a tiny Toronto backyard posted that her kids haven’t gone out the front door. People want to make sure they’re following the advice of medical experts. They’re doing their best to keep their families and their communities safe. 

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If kids staying away from public spaces were necessary to contain the virus, I would be okay with it. But I don’t think it is. The reality is this virus doesn’t jump from one briefly passing pedestrian to another. As Dr. Bonnie Henry, the medical officer of health for B.C., recently explained, the risk of transmission in such an encounter is infinitesimally small,” even if the passersby are within a few feet of each other for a few seconds. With viruses, you have to be exposed to a critical mass of virus particles, which means that for non-touch exposure, you typically need to be near an infectious person for an adequate period of time. Singapore became a success story by tracing and isolating “close contacts” of confirmed COVID-19 cases, people who had spent 30 minutes or more within two metres of the person. Similarly, the BC Centre for Disease Control defined those at risk from a confirmed case as anyone who lives in the same household or has spent 15 minutes or more within two metres of the person when they were potentially infectious. This is not to say that the virus couldn’t spread in less time, but it puts in perspective the risk of briefly passing someone on the street or in a park. Additionally, when it comes to transmission, conventional wisdom about respiratory viruses is that indoor air promotes their spread more than outdoor air, and emerging evidence suggests this holds true for this particular coronavirus.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that we don’t need to exercise physical distancing outside. Prolonged proximity with non-household members is risky right now, whether indoors or outdoors. And in a crowd, an infectious person can transmit not just to one person, but multiple people at once. My point is that with six-feet distance, the risk of transmission outside is very low.

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Meanwhile, the benefits of outdoor activity for kids are critical. Health Canada recommends kids get a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a day, and that’s a lot easier to do outdoors than indoors. Now that recreational programming has been cancelled, most kids will get their dose of physical activity through active play—kicking a ball on grass, shooting hoops, or playing hide and seek. We don’t think of it as exercise the same way we do jogging or walking, but that’s their version of it, and it’s highly effective. As any parent knows, outdoor time is vital for children’s cognitive and emotional needs too—kids learn and sleep better when they get outside, ideally in green space, every day. Being in nature reduces their stress, just as it does for adults. And sunlight has its own benefits. Vitamin D is necessary for a healthy immune system, as well as for children’s growing bones. 

Blanket “stay home” messaging may have been appropriate at the beginning of this pandemic, when physical distancing was new and confusing. But now that we understand physical distancing better, the messaging can be more nuanced. Keep in mind, researchers warn COVID-19 likely won’t likely be eradicated; this lockdown has been long, and it likely won’t be the only one we have to endure. We need to adapt in a way that’s sustainable for our health, and for our kids’ health. 

Cities should reopen closed green spaces and, during lockdown periods, open up roads to pedestrians and cyclists. If necessary, by-law officers can monitor parks at busy times to encourage physical distancing instead of automatically slapping down fines. Medical authorities should not just allow, but recommend, daily outdoor exercise, especially for children, and they should reassure parents it can be done safely, no matter where they live. Public health experts should offer strategies for explaining and enforcing physical distancing in age-appropriate ways. My own kids, at three and five, have heard “back up” and “give more space” often enough that they now typically maintain six feet without being told. It’s time public health messaging take a more holistic health approach, one that balances the risk of transmission with the benefits of getting outside.