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Trevor Hancock: We are too risk-averse for our own good

Injuries are a major health concern in Canada, especially among young people; they are the largest cause of death for Canadians ages one to 44.

Injuries are a major health concern in Canada, especially among young people; they are the largest cause of death for Canadians ages one to 44.

Moreover, while overall mortality rates declined 20 per cent from 2000 to 2011, the decline for accidental injuries was only six per cent. This has led to significant focus on injury prevention in public health.

But partly due to the strong focus on injury prevention, we have become a risk-averse society. This is compounded by a constant litany of bad news that makes it seem as if we are being overwhelmed by accidents, violence and stranger abductions.

As a result, we have a misperception when it comes to the risks facing our children. So fearful have we become that we now have “helicopter parents” hovering over “bubble-wrapped children” who are kept indoors to keep them safe, while we have made playgrounds so safe they are boring. At a time when we are increasingly aware of the health benefits of getting kids more involved in active play and in contact with nature, this is a problem.

Now comes a timely review of the evidence on risky play from a team led by Dr. Mariana Brussoni from the B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit at B.C. Children’s Hospital. Their review, published this month, “revealed overall positive effects of risky outdoor play on a variety of health indicators and behaviours, most commonly physical activity, but also social health and behaviours, injuries and aggression.”

An associated position statement issued by, among others, the prevention unit, the Research Institute of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and Participaction, made some important points that are at odds with our general perceptions:

• The odds of total-stranger abduction are about one in 14 million, based on RCMP reports. Being with friends outdoors might further reduce the risk.

• Broken bones and head injuries do happen, but most injuries associated with outdoor play are minor.

• Canadian children are eight times more likely to die as motor-vehicle passengers than from being hit by a vehicle when on foot or on a bike.

These researchers suggest that we “need to encourage action to support children’s risky outdoor play opportunities.” Among the benefits, according to the position statement, are that risky play helps kids “build confidence, autonomy and resilience, develop skills, solve problems and learn their own limits.”

But the encouragement of risky play is not just a matter of telling parents and others who supervise children to ease up. First, there is a matter of what constitutes acceptable risk.

More than 20 years ago Dr. Robert Conn, a pediatric heart surgeon, established the Smart Risk Foundation. He suggested we should all develop a “stupid line,” the line between taking risks that we see as manageable and those we do not. So what is our “stupid line” for kids — and who decides?

Even more problematic is that we have built up an entire system of risk-reduction that is now getting in the way of healthy and somewhat risky outdoor play.

The position statement points to these structural problems, recommending among other things that attorneys general undertake liability reform to establish reasonable liability limits for municipal governments.

It is also recommended that “provincial and municipal governments work together to create an environment where public entities are protected from frivolous lawsuits over minor injuries related to normal and healthy outdoor risky active play.” In addition, they suggest removing the requirement that outdoor play spaces meet the very risk-averse Canadian Standards Association standards in order to get funding.

Clearly, we need to remove the structural barriers to make healthy but somewhat risky play possible. (Google: “Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play.”) I suggest you share it with your school principal and school board, your local parks and recreation departments, municipal and provincial politicians and others who shape the play environments of children.

Let’s bring back the health benefits of risky play.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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