Putting the Risk Back in Outdoor Play

Let’s face it, outdoor play isn’t what it used to be. And when kids do spend time outside, playing under close adult supervision is the norm. Society has promoted safety first, and established rules to prevent anything wrong from happening. But does this truly benefit children? Have we lost sight of the benefits of outdoor play in trying to protect our children from every risk? Those are the questions The Lawson Foundation wanted to answer with their new Outdoor Play Strategy.

Funding Strategies That Go Beyond Funding

Today, there is strong evidence that the benefits of playing outside and taking risks are not only physical, but cognitive, social and emotional as well, while staying inside too much has more negative impacts on children’s health.

For the Lawson Foundation, contributing to the well-being of children has been a focus for years. The Foundation currently invests in ideas, people and organizations in three interconnected areas: Early Child Development, Healthy Active Children and Youth, and Youth & the Environment. So funding an Outdoor Play Strategy fit within the Foundation’s overall program. But, as is often the case at Lawson, funding was only one part of the equation.

Since the late 1990s, the Lawson Foundation has been a strategic grantmaker that has acted as a connector, collaborator and convenor, with the clear objective to encourage conversations and knowledge sharing for the greater good. Although playing an active part is not new for the Foundation, the Outdoor Play initiative felt different: it involved bringing together diverse approaches and creating a community of practice for several players in a collective purpose. The Foundation’s involvement was instigated by a conviction that the projects would be stronger when the teams were networked together.

“There’s no cookie-cutter way we determine our participation in our areas of interest,” explains Christine Alden, Program Director. “Each granting area and sometimes each project calls for its own type of involvement”. In this case, the Lawson Foundation saw the opportunity to support emerging leadership on outdoor play across the country, by bringing leaders together to achieve a stronger impact both individually and collectively. “Our primary objective was not to take the lead,” continues Alden. “We wanted to nurture outdoor play initiatives so they would become strong enough to steer us towards a better future for our children”.

Creating A Program Strategy

Before the vision for the Outdoor Play Strategy came together, the Lawson Foundation co-funded three academic papers on risky play, outdoor time, and active outdoor play. The Foundation supported the convening of a working group to develop a Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play under the leadership of Dr. Mark Tremblay, a researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Research Institute.

On June 22nd, 2015 the Positioning Statement on Outdoor Play was published in the ParticipACTION Report Card on the Physical Activity of Children and Youth. Since its release in 2015, the Position Statement has garnered interest from the media and the public, as well as being endorsed by an unexpected source: it was cited in a Supreme Court ruling that cleared the Corporation of the District of Saanich of any wrongdoing in a case where the plaintiff fell from a piece of playground equipment and struck her head.

“(…) Their ‘report card’ concludes, amongst other things, that long-term physical health and development should be valued as much as safety, and that rules and regulations designed to prevent injuries and reduce tort liability have become excessive and counterproductive to youth health and fitness.”

The Position Statement was followed by a Lawson funding call to identify projects that would help put into motion the research findings and call to action, and learn collectively communicate how communities could increase children’s opportunities for unstructured outdoor play.

Fourteen projects were selected as a cohort with focuses ranging from nurturing development of active play and risk reframing, to online training resources and the creation of a risk mitigation tool kit.


Meeting of the minds: using a cohort approach for a stronger impact

Different projects, different teams, different communities. Bring them together in the same room and you get what the Lawson Foundation was hoping for. Over two meetings of the cohort organized by the Foundation to date, everyone has shared ideas, discussed hurdles, found solutions and learned. These meetings motivated them to push the envelope, encouraged healthy debates on the balance between risk and safety, and nurtured conversations on the way the importance of outdoor play should be communicated throughout Canadian communities.

The Outdoor Play Strategy is being evaluated by the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC), a non-profit research organization, in order to understand how the learning from the various funded projects and the Foundation’s approach could collectively and positively impact kids in Canada. The SRDC provides each project with technical support in the design of their strategies and monitors their learning to inform the higher Strategy level learning.

For Heather Smith Fowler, Research Director at the SRDC, the cohort approach of the Lawson Foundation is very important: “Not often have we come across an approach as deliberate as this one; the Lawson Foundation went above and beyond by looking deeply into the different projects and finding ways to help, not only by connecting the projects within the cohort, but also outside with other stakeholders that could bring in their expertise for the benefit of the cohort.”

In a survey conducted by the SRDC after the events, 100% of grantees agreed that the cohort approach benefited their work. Most of them stated that the initiative allowed them to expand their network of contacts in a meaningful way. They felt inspired by the collective energy in the room and by the sense of community that emerged amongst the groups.

It’s not uncommon for foundations to host a convening and bring in speakers to motivate the troops. What’s more unusual, in this case, is that the Lawson Foundation brought in experts in risk taking and child play from Canada, Norway, Australia and the UK. They were chosen based on recommendations from the grantees and they got involved in the conversations, made suggestions, and rolled up their sleeves with the teams. Three of the speakers knew each other’s work well but had never met in person before. As a result, four experts (including one of the Foundation’s funded project leads) collaborated on a series of symposia about risk for the International Play Association triennial conference in Calgary in 2017.

For the fourteen funded projects, participating in the cohort meetings was a nice change of pace. Some of them reported that in the past, their relationship with foundations was limited to obtaining funds, and providing a report on how the funds were used. They appreciated how thoughtful the Lawson Foundation’s approach was, how much value it brought to their projects in a very practical way.


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