As COVID-19 physical distancing measures stretch farther into the future, schools remain closed and kids’ activities and sports classes continue to be cancelled. Parks, playgrounds and recreational areas are also closed, and playdates or neighbourhood playgroups are clearly not permitted.
For many kids, this means being stuck indoors, as parents try to juggle school work, telework, and running a household, while managing any underlying pandemic stress. Reports of expensive bylaw tickets being issued for gathering in parks, or even playing in green spaces, are also a barrier to outdoor play.
But experts say that it is critical for children to stay active, maintain a routine or set a schedule, and try to get outside as much as possible. Getting outdoors has both physical and mental health benefits, including increasing physical-activity levels, boosting mood, preventing anxiety, and contributing to a healthy immune system.
“The very nature of being outdoors lends itself to kids being more active,” says Michelle Ponti, a pediatrician in London, Ont. and spokesperson for the Canadian Paediatric Society. “You take a kid outside and their immediate reaction is to run, or skip or jump.”
Children should get at least 60 minutes of exercise per day, which can improve bone density, heart health, and help avoid weight related complications like Type 2 diabetes. Before COVID-19, only one third of Canadian children were getting enough exercise and COVID response measures are likely making this worse.
According to recent research, each additional hour spent outdoors is associated with more physical activity and less sedentary behaviour.
“The benefits of physical activity are unequivocal,” says Mark Tremblay, senior research scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute and Professor of Pediatrics in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa. “But the benefits of getting outdoors stretch far beyond physical activity.”
Being outside also reduces anger, fear and stress, and reduces blood pressure, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones such as cortisol. An estimated 1.2 million children and youth in Canada are already affected by mental illness.
“In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, when our regular routines and coping strategies are being challenged, a connection with the outdoors and the environment becomes even more important,” says Tremblay. “Children have an innate desire to connect with nature.”
One study found that children who lack exposure to nearby green spaces were up to 55 per cent more likely to develop depression and anxiety in later years. Ontario Parks compiled a list of all the ways in which nature boosts moods, reduces anxiety and insomnia, and can help us cope and grieve.
“There absolutely is a difference between indoor activity and outdoor activity for kids’ health,” Ponti says. “We know that the outdoor natural light really helps with our circadian rhythm, our sleep-wake cycles. When screen-time takes the place of natural outdoor light we can end up with kids with sleep problems.”
Kids also need sun exposure to make vitamin D, necessary to absorb minerals essential to growth and development, and also needed for a healthy immune system. “That’s what we need to fight COVID and any other thing that’s going to come after,” Tremblay said. “Immune systems respond to healthy living behaviours.”
But it’s also very important that public health guidelines be carefully followed to protect children and others from spreading the novel coronavirus. How do parents get their kids out safely?
“Getting outside is okay during this time as long as you don’t have respiratory symptoms or have to self-isolate,” says Krystal Taylor, spokesperson for Ottawa Public Health and supervisor for its Healthy Eating and Active Living team. Some health guidelines recommend those with symptoms of COVID-19, older than 70, returning from domestic travel, or with compromised immune systems go into voluntary self-isolation.
“It is critical that people get outside for physical and mental health,” Taylor says. “But we do need to do it carefully.”
Parents can get children and teens outside for walks, runs or even rollerblading and bike rides, as long as they avoid crowds and maintain a distance of two meters from others, according to Ottawa public health guidelines.
“Our sidewalks, streets and multi-use paths are still available,” Taylor says. Although she says that passing someone on the sidewalk is not considered close contact or a significant risk for exposure to COVID-19, she also recommends people make an effort to step-aside, or pass others quickly and courteously. In busy neighbourhoods, families should think about their route or the time of day that they go out so that they can keep a distance from others.
“Just remember that parks are only to pass through, not to stay and play, talk to friends, or stop for a picnic,” Taylor says. Communal services, such as water fountains and benches, should be avoided and kids should always wash their hands when they return home.
“The problem is when some people violate the rules,” says Tremblay. “If everyone gets together in the park and aren’t showing common sense, that’s when we might need these expensive fines.”
For families with a yard, possibilities are endless. Children can play sports like soccer or badminton, or enjoy unstructured play time with members of their own households. Otherwise, people may need to be more creative. “Maybe bringing binoculars, or setting up a scavenger list, and there’s lots of other ideas to make the walk a little more fun,” Taylor says.
If you are really unable to get kids outside regularly, have them sit by a window and make sure to let fresh air in throughout the day, these experts say. “I think we’re lucky that at this time of year it’s possible to spend time outside, so if people have a porch or a balcony – even doing some homework outside can make a difference,” Taylor says. There are also many resources such as Isolation Recreation, or Participaction.com to help with indoor exercise and fitness regimes if necessary.
“The power of the outdoors is extraordinary,” says Tremblay, “and it’s an underappreciated thing. One of the silver linings of this whole crisis is that maybe people actually learn that appreciation again.”