From obesity to allergies, outdoor play is the best medicine for children

By: Mariana Brussoni, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia

Editor’s note – This article was originally published in the Canadian edition of The Conversation. We are pleased to reprint it here with a breif commentary from Mariana Brussoni who visits Nova Scotia next to participate in the Summer of PLEY series.

Children report being at their happiest when playing outside. (Shutterstock)

Mariana Brussoni, University of British Columbia

What if there was a simple, inexpensive and fun way to address some of the major challenges facing humanity today. What if it could help improve children’s health, development and well-being?

Imagine a solution that could stem the current epidemics of obesity, anxiety and depression affecting children and youth today. Imagine that this solution could also promote brain health, creativity and academic achievement and prepare our children for the rapidly-changing work force.

Along the way it could reduce incidence of allergies, asthma and other immunity challenges and improve eye health. It could foster a culture of environmental stewardship and sustainability and help build the health of cities — promoting neighbourliness and feelings of community connection.

Imagine that this intervention could also help countries meet their targets for many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, such as the goals of Good Health and Well-being, Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education, Decent Work and Economic Growth and Climate Action.

This isn’t an expensive intervention, or one that parents have to force their children to do — like homework or eating their vegetables. Rather than dreading it, children report being at their happiest when doing it and they seek ways to keep at it for as long as possible.

What is this fix-all simple solution? Playing outside.

The magic of outdoor play

Many of us have fond memories of childhoods spent outside, hanging out with friends in our neighbourhoods, parks and wild places, making up the rules as we went along, with minimal (if any) adult supervision.

Children need the time, space and freedom to play outdoors. (Shutterstock)

We need only reflect on our own play memories to realize how valuable these experiences can be and how they can shape our lifelong health and development. The research is now catching up to our intuitions, recognizing the vast and diverse benefits of outdoor play.


Read more: Why kids need risk, fear and excitement in play


Playing outside is not the same as playing inside. There are unique benefits of being in the outdoors, particularly in nature, that don’t come as readily indoors. When children are allowed to play the way they want to play in stimulating environments, they move more, sit less and play longer.

They get their hands in the dirt and are exposed to microbes that help them build their immunity. They make their own goals and figure out the steps to attain those goals, helping them build executive function skills. They learn, build resilience and develop their social skills, learn how to manage risks and keep themselves safe. Their eyes get the exercise they need to help combat short-sightedness.

We are rediscovering the magic of outdoor play. Governments see it as a way of getting kids active and averting the obesity crisis. Schools and early childhood centres see it as a way of promoting academic and socio-emotional learning. Corporations see it as a way of preparing children for the jobs of the future that will focus on creativity, empathy and connection with others. Children just see it as a way of having fun and feeling free!

Adults must let go of their fears

There are three key ingredients to supporting outdoor play: time, space and freedom.

Kids need time to be able to play outside. In schools, that means recess policies that get kids outside every day, finding opportunities to use the outdoors for learning and limiting homework. At home, that means laying aside screens and limiting scheduled structured activities.

Risky play teaches children to keep themselves safe. (Shutterstock)

Kids also need high quality outdoor spaces to play in. That doesn’t necessarily mean expensive playground equipment. It means spaces where all children feel welcome, regardless of their abilities and backgrounds, that they can make their own and that also have loose parts (for example sticks, stones, water and cardboard boxes) they can use and let their imagination shape the play.


Read more: Five tips to manage screen time this summer


In cities, that means being prepared for and allowing play to happen everywhere, not just parks and playgrounds. We need to design inclusive and child-friendly cities where kids feel welcome everywhere and can easily access nature.

Finally, freedom: the biggest barrier to children’s ability to play the way they want to play is adults. We need to let go of our excessive fears of injuries and kidnapping and realize that the benefits of kids getting out to play far outweigh the risks. My lab developed a risk reframing tool for parents and caregivers to help them on this journey.

Support the children in your life

Helping support children’s outdoor play can be as simple as opening the front door. It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. If we all do our bit, we can help bring back this crucial activity that should be part of all children’s daily lives, regardless of age, cultural background, gender or ability.

Playing outdoors reduces incidence of allergies, asthma and other immunity challenges. (Unsplash/Matthew T Rader), CC BY

There are lots of tools to help you get started, whether you’re a parent, caregiver, educator, city planner or a neighbour.

I would encourage you to consider one simple and attainable thing you are going to do today to help get the child or children in your life get out to play.

Mariana Brussoni, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Role of the Adult in Loose Parts Play

Editor’s note: This list of advice was written by our PLEY team member and early childhood educator extraordinaire, Jane Cawley. Thanks for your hard work, Jane!

One of the topics that the team discussed before, during, and after the pop-up event is the role of the adult in loose parts outdoor play. I will present some ideas for your consideration.

  1. Make sure there is an abundance of loose parts available. According to Simon Nicholson, “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it”. We had a basement full of loose parts.
  2. Prepare the environment and materials. This role is directly linked to the mitigation of injury. It is the adult’s responsibility to assess the physical space for hazards (not the same as risk). Also, all loose parts must be checked for safety and appropriateness (e.g. we sanded all of the wooden pallets to remove sharp edges).
  3. Provide support materials to enhance the loose parts (creative supplies, etc.). The children made signs, flags, and decorations for their creations.
  4. During the time the children are exploring loose parts, the adult’s role is to serve as observer; to assess what children are playing with, how they are playing, and who they are playing with. 
  5. The age of the child will dictate how close or how far you can place yourself.  It is thrilling for children to be trusted to play a distance away from adults.  One of the things I observed with children of all ages at the pop-up event was an intermittent need to make a connection with their “adult person”. A little head would pop up from a cardboard structure, they would catch the eye of their parent/caregiver/educator, often with no words being spoken. Then back they would go to their play.
  6. Follow children’s lead without taking over.
  7. Wait before jumping in too soon to help solve a problem. I was chatting with a Mom at the event and Tanner age 2 was rolling tires.  He pushed one towards us and it fell over at our feet.  Tanner then went to the tire and tried to pull it up, making a grunting sound. Without thinking I bent over to lift it up for him. Luckily, I caught myself and pulled my hand away. Without hesitation Tanner tried again but could only get it an inch off the ground. Then he moved his legs further apart, bent his knees and tried a third time. SUCCESS!
  8. Trust children to make decisions.
  9. The adult can provide language by asking open-ended questions that further inquiry but only if you think it is needed.  Most children are motivated by the experience itself and do not need us to spark their interest. I believe sometimes we talk too much!
  10. Ensure long blocks of time for deep exploration. The children were very vocal about not wanting to leave until they were “done”. Remember, Play takes Time.

Pop-up Playground Adventures

Editors note: This blog was written by one of Play Outside NS’s most important teams members, Jane Cawley. Jane is a retired Early Childhood Educator and former Director of the Nova Scotia College of Early Childhood Education. Jane not only has many years of caring for children under her belt, but she also teaches how to best support children’s development to our current and future Educators.


The amazing thing about a pop-up playground event is that it looks to an outside observer like a magical happening, that arrives with a “POP” and 5 hours later it disappears as quickly as it came. In reality, it takes months of planning; sourcing loose parts, creating an ongoing presence on social media, forming community partnerships, amassing an army of volunteers, creating and implementing a task plan for the team, and all the while keeping fingers crossed that the weather will be good.

We arrived at the Commons on the day with a U-Haul and our cars packed to the rafters. We unloaded the loose parts and reassembled hundreds of cardboard boxes (the bigger the better) that had been flattened for easy storage. Our team member Alex Smith, who hosted a pop-up playground in 2017, advised us to gather as many cardboard boxes as we could and thank goodness, we took that advice.  As you can see from photos the boxes were a big hit. Next, we staged the loose parts into separate areas, creating visual invitations to come and play.

…and then the magic happened!

The children started to arrive wide-eyed and curious. There were toddlers, preschool and school age children and even a few infants. Some children came in groups from child care centres or day camps, and some came with caregivers or parents.  Some came because they had seen the event notice, and some were driving by and stopped to see what it was all about.  Some children dove right in, but some children were a bit hesitant. Message to the children, “play and have fun.” Message to the adults, “The beauty lies in allowing the children the freedom to explore the materials, use them as they wish, and take them to any area of the play area they feel the need to.”

We observed the children playing with the loose parts in many different ways. Physical play was happening as children immediately began reorganizing, picking up, or dragging the loose parts to other locations. Often when the loose part was heavy or bulky the children had to adopt a collaborative plan to make this happen. Even though there were lots of materials and lots of children, the Commons provided spaces for children to practice balancing skills, to throw and catch balls, and to move their bodies. We observed balancing structures created with wood planks and tires as well as throwing games with balls and buckets. The children demonstrated confidence, motivation and competence; all of the elements of physical literacy.

Construction play was a theme throughout the day, with the older children having a specific goal “we’re gonna build a fort”, and the younger children simply working organically with the materials and somehow some of those turned into forts too. The children also engaged in dramatic play as they assumed roles to match their structures. One group mixed water and crushed chalk to make a secret potion.

Loose parts play can support collaborative group play or be used by one child engaged in solitary play, or two children playing side by side in parallel play. We observed younger children playing with older children; friends playing together; children playing with other children they had just met.  They were recognizing and appreciating the talents, skills, abilities and capacities to contribute to the play community. They were learning from each other and functioning in a cohesive, respectful, and responsible way.

The use of open-ended materials like loose parts can also lead to risky play. Good risks are those that engage and challenge children and support their growth, learning, and development (Play England, 2007). We observed children carefully assess their own capabilities and without adult input make thoughtful decisions. We also observed older children offering support to younger children.

An interesting statistic…PLEY team members had bandages in their pockets.  Final tally – zero bandages handed out. Thank you for the generosity of the community in supporting our Summer of PLEY Pop-Up Playground.

Pop-up Loose Parts Playground Pictures

Stay tuned for more pictures and our recap blog from our Pop-up Playground…




In Praise of Loose Parts

Editor’s note – this is a revised version of a blog post originally published in PlayGroundology in 2014. It speaks to a study led by Dr. Brendon Hyndman on the introduction of loose parts at an Australian primary school.

Canadian research teams are making important contributions to our understanding of play’s critical role in childhood and beyond. The Dalhousie-led Physical Literacy in the Early Years – (PLEY) project is helping to create a better understanding of how integrating loose parts materials into outdoor play spaces impacts children’s health, and the impact on educator and parent attitudes, beliefs, and understanding around physical literacy, active outdoor play and risk-taking during play.

We hope that you will be able to join us for one of the Summer of PLEY events. First up on the calendar is the Pop-Up Loose Parts Play adventure on the Halifax South Common – more info and RSVP here on Eventbrite.

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In play, ‘loose parts’ are skirting the edges of nirvana. Ask any kid. Now they probably won’t call them ‘loose parts’. They’re more likely to use the generic and all encompassing ‘stuff’ prefaced by cool, awesome, or great. It might even go the way of ‘this stuff is epic’.

Simple play is best for kids
Students at Emmaus Primary Catholic School – Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Jay Town. Source: HeraldSun


Wood, rope, tarps, tires, milk crates, cardboard boxes, fabrics and apparently hay bales too can make up a loose parts inventory. It’s what the kids do with it that’s a real blast. They create, they build up and pull down, they improvise, they move, groove and PLAY!

Now, thanks to Australian researcher Brendon P. Hyndman we have empirical evidence that loose parts in primary schools go way beyond a good thing. From the perspective of increasing physical activity, engaging a broad cross-section of kids and being light on constantly squeezed budgets, this study shouts out ‘Eureka!’ embrace loose parts play.

Here are selected comments from A Guide for Educators to Move Beyond Conventional School Playgrounds…. published in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education.

the way they interact with each other…it’ s lovely to listen to…the co-operative play has really increased…they do negotiations…interactions between levels has been fantastic

kids in my room have mixed with kids they wouldn’t normally hang out with…there’s not a…set number that can or can’t be involved

students became a lot more complex in what they did…it was a real journey…there was…dragging, pulling and moving…then came the building phase…then came the dramatic phase…but all of those remain there

Quantitative data, as the charts below demonstrate, also offer a compelling storyline – given the opportunity, kids will choose to build and play with a variety of loose parts so much so that it becomes the dominant play activity.

Ausie Journal of Teacher Education

Given that many kids in Australia and elsewhere are getting the bulk of their physical activity and play within the school setting, in excess of 50% in some instances as cited in Hyndman’s study, these findings are significant.

The effects of the loose parts intervention were measured at various stages over a 2 1/2 year period and engagement remained steady.

“…teachers’ perceptions were that student exhibited increased amounts of excitement, engagement, creativity, problem solving and physical activity during their play with the introduced movable/recycled materials.”

Loose parts are an important part of the playwork canon and have strong roots in the UK within adventure playgrounds and with groups such as Pop-Up Adventure Play. David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground has also a taken a page from the loose parts experience in the creation of the big blue block play environments.

Loose Parts

All hail loose parts. They are the jazz of play bebopping the kids along in a wonderfall of spontaneity. There are downsides though that can’t be dismissed. As more and more schools, neighbourhood groups and play schemes embrace loose parts, it just might start proving difficult to source the ingredients – milk crates, cardboard boxes and of course hay bales!

Here are kids at a loose parts pop-up play event held on the Halifax South Common two years ago with the UK’s Pop-Up Adventure Play and local not-for-profit CanadaPlays Association.

Get ready for more of the same kind of fun, excitement, laughter and smiles on July 22 as the Summer of PLEY rolls out a loose parts pop-up on the Halifax South Common adjacent to the Pavilion building.

Welcome to Play Outside NS

Play Outside NS publishes the latest on the activities and research of Dalhousie University’s PLEY (Physical Literacy in the Early Years) project. Readers will also be able to check in on great Nova Scotia play stories, get insights on children’s play from across the country and catch up on news from the international community.

It’s all kicking off with the Summer of PLEY, a series of events for kids and adults scheduled for July and August. First out of the sandbox is a loose parts play pop-up on the Halifax Commons – the kids won’t want to miss this. Save the date for July 22. More details soon.

Save the date July 22 for pop-up loose parts play fun on the Halifax Commons

A special guest is lined up for a public talk in August on a developing theme – risk and play. This topic continues to generate interest and engage a broad range of people including parents, caregivers, researchers, designers, healthcare professionals, educators, recreation leaders and more. The speaker’s evidence-based research, candour and common sense are well respected by media, academics and the broader play community. Stay tuned for more details…

There is more in store that we will be sharing here, on Twitter and on Facebook. We hope you will be able to join us in person and/or online. We’re always interested in your thoughts and comments.

Excerpted from Ariel Aberg-Riger’s An Illustrated History of New York City’s Playgrounds in The Atlantic‘s CITYLAB – May 16, 2019.

But wait, it’s not just about us. This week there have been a couple of international media stories focused exclusively on play. The US experience offers An Illustrated History of New York City’s Playgrounds published in The Atlantic‘s CITYLAB. Interesting perspectives and did we mention great graphics too?

In the UK, The Guardian ran Children are stuck inside more than ever – how can we give them back their freedom? in their Cities section. It’s a fair question – how do we do it? Both publications have a longstanding commitment to reporting on children’s play.

To close out this first post, hats off to funders, volunteers, kids and teachers of a growing international movement – Outdoor Classroom Day. It’s happening in a community near you on May 23. Get the kids outside. Bravo to the 20+ Nova Scotia schools taking part this year…

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