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International Journal of Play
ISSN: 2159-4937 (Print) 2159-4953 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rijp20
Children's outdoor playtime, physical activity,
and parental perceptions of the neighbourhood
Guy Faulkner, Raktim Mitra, Ron Buliung, Caroline Fusco & Michelle Stone
To cite this article: Guy Faulkner, Raktim Mitra, Ron Buliung, Caroline Fusco & Michelle Stone
(2015) Children's outdoor playtime, physical activity, and parental perceptions of the neighbourhood
environment, International Journal of Play, 4:1, 84-97, DOI: 10.1080/21594937.2015.1017303
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2015.1017303
Published online: 24 Apr 2015.
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Children’s outdoor playtime, physical activity, and parental perceptions of
the neighbourhood environment
*, Raktim Mitra
, Ron Buliung
, Caroline Fusco
and Michelle Stone
Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto, 55 Harbord Street, Toronto, ON,
Canada M5S 2W6;
School of Urban and Regional Planning, Ryerson University, Toronto, ON, Canada;
Department of Geography, University of Toronto at Mississauga, 3359 Mississauga Road N, South
Building, Mississauga, ON, Canada L5 L 1C6;
School of Health and Human Performance, Dalhousie
University, 6230 South Street, PO Box 15000, Halifax, NS B3H 4R2, Canada
(Received 20 December 2013; accepted 10 October 2014)
The purpose of this study was to examine the association between the hours of outdoor play and
objective measures of physicalactivity and identify the correlates of outdoor playingtime in terms
of parental perceptions of the neighbourhood environment. Time spent in outdoor play, both on a
typical weekday and a typical weekend day, and neighbourhood perceptions, was assessed by
parental self-report for 889 students attending grades 5 and 6 in Toronto, Canada (mean age:
10.50 ± 0.72 years). Physical activity was assessed by accelerometry. Ordered logit models
were estimated to explore the inﬂuence of neighbourhood perceptions on the time spent
playing outdoors. Regardless of a child’s age and sex, duration of play was signiﬁcantly
correlated with minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Parental concerns about
strangers and fast drivers were inversely associated with duration of play on a typical
weekday. Parental safety concerns continueto present a formidable barrier to greater outdoor play.
Keywords: play; physical activity; neighbourhood environment; safety
The beneﬁcial effects of play in terms of children’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social
development are well recognized and empirically supported (Cheng & Johnson, 2010; Gleave
& Cole-Hamilton, 2012). As Gleave and Cole-Hamilton (2012) suggest, ‘free play may be the
most natural and effective form of learning and is also vital for children’s happiness’(p. 21).
Indeed, play has been declared ‘a right of every child’by the United Nation’sConvention on
the Rights of the Child (1990). There are many types of play, but broadly deﬁned, play is generally
freely chosen, spontaneous, self-directed, and fun (Gleave & Cole-Hamilton, 2012; Gray, 2011).
Active play involves physical activity at energy costs above resting levels but below ‘exercise’
levels (Active Healthy Kids Canada [AHKC], 2012). Encouraging or increasing active play
has increasingly come into focus as a public health policy target given its potential role in
helping children accumulate the 60 minutes of daily physical activity currently recommended
for optimal health in Canada (Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, 2011).
While the beneﬁts of play are acknowledged, there are concerns that play, particularly outdoor
play, is in decline. First, there has been generational change for children of the same age. One US
© 2015 Taylor & Francis
*Corresponding author. Email: email@example.com
International Journal of Play, 2015
Vol. 4, No. 1, 84–97, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2015.1017303
study has reported a 25% decrease in time spent playing among six- to eight-year-olds between
1981 and 1997 (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001). Second, there is a decline in outdoor play as chil-
dren of the same generation age. In a longitudinal cohort study of Australian parents, children’s
average time spent outdoors signiﬁcantly declined over a ﬁve-year period (Cleland et al., 2010).
For boys and girls between the ages of 5–6 and 10–11, approximate declines of 160 and 100
minutes per week playing outdoors were reported. Similarly, adults typically perceive that chil-
dren today play outdoors less than they did as children (Clements, 2004). Similarly, a Pan-Cana-
dian survey reported that while Canadians value outdoor time, they strongly agree that children do
not spend enough time outdoors (Canadian Parks and Recreation Association, 2010).
Overall, this type of evidence led Active Healthy Kids Canada (AHKC) to ask in their 2012
Report Card ‘Is active play extinct?’In a related campaign, ParticipACTION, a Canadian social
marketing initiative promoting physical activity, initiated the Bring Back Play campaign. Bring
Back Play aims, in part using online education, to reintroduce fun games and unstructured
active play that historically were a large part of childhood (see www.participaction.com/get-
Reasons for an apparent decline in play are complex and multifaceted. In the USA, Gray
(2011) traced the decline in play to approximately 1955 when adults started exerting greater
control over children’s activities outside of the world of labour. Increasingly, parental safety con-
cerns are considered central. In the largest international survey on child development and play
(Family Kids and Youth/Research Now, 2010), the most frequently cited reason for restricting
outdoor play was the parental fear of child predators (49%) and trafﬁc danger (43%). Qualitative
research has also consistently documented parental safety concerns as largely explaining
reductions in independent mobility to travel places, and play once there, without adult supervision
(Carver, Timperio, & Crawford, 2008; Jago et al., 2009; Veitch, Bagley, Ball, & Salmon, 2006).
Accordingly, parents may limit their child’s outdoor playtime, restrict activities to the home or
supervised spaces, chauffeur children to activities, and increasingly rely on screen-based activities
to keep children entertained. Ergler, Kearns, and Witten (2013) suggest that the relative rarity of
children playing outdoors independently has now normalized supervised indoor play and reduced
children’s opportunities to see outdoor play as an alternative to indoor and/or supervised activi-
ties. How best to reverse this trend is not clear, although researchers have commonly called for
interventions to facilitate travel opportunities and outdoor activities that parents perceive as
safe and supervised (Jago et al., 2009; Mammen, Faulkner, Buliung, & Lay, 2012). This may
also include play opportunities that minimize hazards including adventure playgrounds or the pro-
vision of unstructured play materials that can be used in conventional playgrounds (Brussoni,
Olsen, Pike, & Sleet, 2012).
Relatively few studies have focused on the amount or predictors of children’s outdoor play
(Carver et al., 2008; Marino, Fletcher, Whitaker, & Anderson, 2012). With regard to outdoor
play duration, Marino and colleagues found that 38% of pre-school children (three to four
years old) in the USA played outside at home >2 hours per weekday. Neighbourhood quality
likely produces opportunities for play and informs perception of safety, and subsequently may
inﬂuence whether parents are comfortable allowing their children to spend more time playing out-
doors, unsupervised. Current evidence on the association between physical access to play-related
land uses and a child’s participation in outdoor play is mixed. Marino et al. (2012) found that chil-
dren who had a yard near home or who had visited a park or playground, or gone to picnic with a
family member in the last month were more likely to have >2 hours per weekday outdoor play at
home. Having a playground within walking distance of the home was not related to home outdoor
In their longitudinal study of Australian youth, Cleland et al. (2010) found no evidence of an
association between yard size, home physical activity opportunities, local destinations, weather,
International Journal of Play 85
and time outdoors. Instead, individual and social factors may be more important predictors of
decline in time outdoors than physical environmental factors. For example, children with prefer-
ences for indoor activities spent less time outdoors. This highlights that children are also able to
inﬂuence the play outcome in terms of their own preferences for play location or type, for
example. In addition, having outdoor social opportunities was important for younger boys’
(5–6 years) time outdoors, while parent encouragement and supervision were important for
girls and older boys’(10–12 years) time outdoors (Cleland et al., 2010). In a cross-sectional
study of Swiss youth comprising three age groups (6/7, 9/10, and 13/14 years), age was inversely
associated with outdoor play, while being male and having younger siblings were positively
associated with outdoor play (Bringolf-Isler et al., 2010). Signiﬁcant inverse associations were
also reported between outdoor play and parental perception of problems due to trafﬁc, crime,
and garden/park non-availability among the younger children.
Given the established beneﬁts of play for children’s development, and in the context of declin-
ing time spent playing for many children, further research is required to identify correlates of play
that might be amenable to policy or practice intervention. There is an international need for such
research. In Canada, an AHKC Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth has been
produced every year since 2004. Based on available data, the report card assesses a number of
indicators such as overall physical activity, organized sport participation, active play, and
active transportation. This report card process was replicated in 14 additional countries from 5
continents in 2014. In the global matrix of physical activity-related grades comparing 15
countries, 10 countries graded the active play indicator as ‘incomplete’because of insufﬁcient
data and/or lack of clarity on the benchmark or the deﬁnition of active play (Tremblay et al.,
2014). In addressing this gap, this study explores outdoor play behaviour of grade 5/6 children
in Toronto, Canada. Two research questions were addressed. First, is there an association
between the hours of outdoor play and objective measures of physical activity? Second, what
are the correlates of outdoor playing time in terms of parental perceptions of the neighbourhood
environment and objectively measured access to outdoor play facilities (distance to parks and
schools, and park area)? Parental perception was explored with an assumption that for young chil-
dren, parents (or adult caregivers) take the majority of decisions regarding a child’s outdoor mobi-
lity and activity participation (Faulkner, Richichi, Buliung, Fusco, & Moola, 2010; Mitra, 2013).
While we recognize that children may, to various extents depending on their physical and cogni-
tive maturity, inﬂuence these household decision-making processes, and want to be trusted with
decisions with respect to managing risks and safety (Valentine, 1997), a child’s neighbourhood
and play-related perceptions were not studied in this paper.
Data and study area
Children’s outdoor play duration, on a typical weekday and a typical weekend day, was explored
using data from Project BEAT (Built Environment and Active Transport; www.beat.utoronto.ca).
The data collection took place between April 2010 and May 2011, at 16 public elementary/inter-
mediate schools in Toronto, Canada. Elementary school children attending grades 5 and 6 (mean
age: 10.50 ± 0.72 years) and their parents participated in this study. Our focus was on the elemen-
tary-aged school population because the geographic scale that elementary schools serve may
support walking and cycling for a greater proportion of the school population compared with
middle or high schools (McMillan, 2005). These 16 schools were systematically selected from
a larger sampling universe and were located in either ‘older’urban neighbourhoods (n=8) or
‘newer’inner-suburban neighbourhoods (n= 8). The urban neighbourhoods are typically
86 G. Faulkner et al.
characterized by mixed land use and grid-based street layout. In contrast, the inner-suburban
neighbourhoods were typically built after the Second World War and can be characterized by seg-
regated land use, looped street layout, and a clear hierarchy of streets (Hess, 2009; Sewell, 1993).
These selected neighbourhoods are generally representative of typical traditional and planned
suburban neighbourhood types. Built environment characteristics vary considerably across
these neighbourhoods, providing an opportunity to examine associations between perceived
neighbourhood qualities (e.g. perceived safety, attractiveness, and social capital), access to
parks and schools, and outdoor play.
A total of 1027 parents (i.e. adult caregivers) gave consent for their children to participate.
Children’s physical activity was measured using accelerometry (ActiGraph© GT1M) for a
seven-day period. A ﬁve-second epoch (interval) captured rapid transitions in activity (Stone,
Rowlands, & Eston, 2009a). For inclusion in data analysis, each child required a minimum
10 hours of wear time for at least 3 weekdays and 1 weekend day (Stone, Rowlands, Middleb-
rooke, Jawis, & Eston, 2009). Average daily minutes of accumulated moderate-to-vigorous phys-
ical activity (MVPA) was used as the objectively measured physical activity outcome and
classiﬁed according to published thresholds (MVPA: >3581 counts per minute; Stone, Rowlands,
& Eston, 2009b).
Play duration was explored using results from a parental survey. Each parent (i.e. primary
adult caregiver of a child) returned a take-home questionnaire survey, answering structured ques-
tions related to the child who brought the survey home. Parents were asked two questions related
to a child’s duration of outdoor play –‘On a typical weekday, how much time does your child
spend playing outdoors?’and ‘On a typical weekend day, how much time does your child
spend playing outdoors?’. Responses were reported on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from
‘None’(1) to ‘More than 3 hours’(7). For statistical analysis, these responses were grouped
into four categories: ‘<30 minutes’,‘30 minutes to 1 hour’,‘1–2 hours’and ‘>2 hours’;an
approach consistent with the categorization used in existing research (Marino et al., 2012).
In order to assess parental neighbourhood environment perception, the parent survey asked
respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of 22 statements related to the physical
and social environments of a child’s neighbourhood of residence, neighbourhood of school, and
the school travel route. Parents reported their responses on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from
‘Strongly Agree’(1) to ‘Strongly Disagree’(5). Out of these 22 statements, 11 related directly
to a child’s neighbourhood of residence and were explored in this paper (Table 1). To analyse
these data, responses were grouped into two groups –‘Agree’(1 or 2 on the 5-point scale)
versus ‘Neutral or Disagree’(3–5on the 5-point scale; used as a reference in a multivariate
Out of 1027 student–parent dyads who participated in Project BEAT, 84% (n= 859) of parents
completed all the information required to explore the correlation between environmental percep-
tion and children’s outdoor playtime. However, valid accelerometry data of at least three week-
days and one weekend day was available for fewer students. As a result, the correlation
between outdoor play duration and average daily MVPA was explored using data from 736
In addition, this study explored the association between access to outdoor play facilities and
outdoor play duration. Accessibility to potential outdoor play locations was measured as the dis-
tance between a child’s residence and the nearest public park/open space, and the total area of
parks/open space within 800 m (0.5 mile, straight line distance) of a residence (Table 1). Acces-
sibility to schools (i.e. community hubs with outdoor play spaces and equipment) was measured
as a distance to the nearest public and Catholic schools (which likely have open ﬁelds/play areas),
which was also estimated using data available from Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and
Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB).
International Journal of Play 87
Table 1. Descriptive statistics (n= 859).
Mean (s.d.) %
Age 10.50 (0.72)
Number of vehicles per licensed driver in a HH 0.74 (0.43)
At least one adult HH member works part time or is a homemaker
Distance to nearest park (km) 0.25 (0.12)
Distance to nearest school (km) 0.36 (0.19)
Park area per square kilometre within 800 m of home location (km) 0.09 (0.08)
Parental perception of neighbourhood environment
There are not enough sidewalks
Neither agree or disagree 8.03
There are enough crosswalks or trafﬁc lights to help people cross busy streets
Neither agree or disagree 10.86
The roads are not attractive enough for a child to walk
Neither agree or disagree 14.67
I/we are worried about our child interacting with strangers
Neither agree or disagree 11.76
There is heavy trafﬁc near my home
Neither agree or disagree 12.45
Most drivers go too fast while driving in my neighbourhood
Neither agree or disagree 17.69
People are out and about, talking, and doing things with one another
Neither agree or disagree 25.26
There are major barriers to walking in my neighbourhood
Neither agree or disagree 7.33
The distance between intersections in my neighbourhood is usually short
Neither agree or disagree 22.00
88 G. Faulkner et al.
The correlation between daily outdoor playtime and physical activity levels was explored using
linear regression. A child’s daily MVPA accumulation was regressed against the amount of time
spent by him/her playing outdoors on a typical weekday/weekend day. To explore the potential
inﬂuence of neighbourhood perceptions on time spent playing outdoors, ordered logit models
(also known as the proportional odds model) were estimated. As mentioned earlier, 11 environ-
mental perception measures were initially considered. Degree of correlation between each of
these potential explanatory variables and outdoor play duration was ﬁrst tested with bivariate
ordered logit models (Lee & Moudon, 2006; Mitra & Buliung, 2012). A total of seven variables
demonstrated statistical association at α= 0.1 (Table 2). These seven variables were then included
in the multivariate logit speciﬁcation.
The ordered logit modelling approach assumes that the relationship between each pair of
outcome groups (i.e. <30 minutes and 30 minutes to 1 hour; 30 minutes to 1 hour and 1–2
hours; 1–2 hours and >2 hours) is the same. A coefﬁcient (
l)from a multivariate ordered
logit model represents the correlation between an individual measure and the log odds of being
in a higher level with regard to playtime, given that all of the other variables in the model are
held constant. Separate models were estimated to explore weekday and weekend day outdoor
Parent reported data on outdoor playtimes by grade 5 and 6 students (n= 859), during a typical
weekday and a typical weekend day and objectively measured daily MVPA data (n= 736),
were explored. Among these children, 53% were girls, and 24% lived in low-income neighbour-
hoods (Table 1). On a typical weekday, 47% of all children remained engaged in outdoor play for
one hour or longer (Table 3). Children played more on weekends; 65% of all children spent more
than one hour playing outdoors on a typical weekend day.
The association between the time spent by a child on a typical weekday/weekend day and his/
her daily accumulation of MVPA is shown in Figure 1. The ﬁgure suggests that regardless of a
child’s age and sex, the duration of play was signiﬁcantly correlated with a child’s physical
activity level. Compared to the reference group of students who spend less than 30 minutes
playing outdoors, longer hours of playtime was associated with higher levels of MVPA.
Results from the multivariate analysis (Table 4) suggest that parental perceptions of the neigh-
bourhood environment associate with the duration of a child’s outdoor play, and also that the cor-
relates related to the environmental qualities were different between weekdays and weekend days.
Table 1. Continued.
Mean (s.d.) %
There are lots of shops and restaurants I can walk to in my neighbourhood
Neither agree or disagree 8.03
I live in a safe neighbourhood
Neither agree or disagree 12.10
Note: HH, household.
International Journal of Play 89
Parental concerns about strangers and fast drivers were associated with the duration of play on a
typical weekday. A child was more likely to play outside for a longer period of time in a neigh-
bourhood where parents perceived that other people were out and about. On a weekend day, par-
ental concern about strangers was associated with the duration of outdoor play. In addition, a child
was more likely to play outside for longer in a neighbourhood that had shops and restaurants
Table 2. Bivariate associations between parental perceptions of the neighbourhood qualities and a child’s
outdoor play duration (n= 859).
Coef. pCoef. p
There are not enough sidewalks
Agree −0.38 .067 −0.18 .364
There are enough crosswalks or trafﬁc lights to help walkers cross busy
Agree −0.15 .256 −0.20 .117
The roads are not attractive enough for a child to walk
Agree −0.29 .126 −0.43 .021
I/we are worried about our child interacting with strangers
Agree −0.48 .000 −0.45 .001
There is heavy trafﬁc near my home
Agree 0.03 .813 0.09 .478
Most drivers go too fast while driving in my neighbourhood
Agree −0.26 .034 −0.07 .573
People are out and about, talking, and doing things with one another
Agree 0.58 .000 0.68 .000
There are major barriers/obstacles to walking in my local neighbourhood that
make it hard to get from place to place
Agree −0.26 .206 0.12 .565
The distance between intersections in my neighbourhood is usually short
(100 m or less)
Agree 0.02 .885 0.14 .271
There are lots of shops and restaurants, I can walk in my neighbourhood
Agree 0.30 .020 0.55 .000
I think I live in a safe neighbourhood
Agree 0.37 .017 0.17 .284
Note: Coefﬁcients in bold are signiﬁcant at p< .05.
Table 3. Time spent by a child playing outdoors (parental reports).
Typical week day Typical weekend day
Less than 30 minutes 173 20.14 117 13.62
30 minutes to 1 hour 285 33.18 183 21.30
1–2 hours 334 38.88 283 32.95
More than 2 hours 67 7.80 276 32.13
Total 859 100 859 100
Note: Pearson chi-square of the difference between weekday and weekend day: 164.61 (df = 1), p< .0001.
90 G. Faulkner et al.
within walkable distance, and where other people were out and about. Access to play facilities
(i.e. parks and schools) was not associated with outdoor play duration.
In addition to the potential inﬂuence of environmental perception, the sex of a child was
associated with the time spent playing outdoors. Table 4 shows that boys were more likely to
play outdoors for longer periods of time (both on a typical weekday and weekend day) compared
to girls. Age of a child did not have any inﬂuence on outdoor play duration although it should be
noted that there was a narrow age range within the sample. A child was also more likely to play
longer on a weekend day if at least one adult household member self-identiﬁed as a part-time
worker or homemaker. No such inﬂuence was present for weekdays.
The ﬁrst objective of this study was to identify whether there was an association between the
hours of outdoor play and objective measures of physical activity. There was a linear relationship
between time spent playing outdoors and MVPA controlling for age and gender. Children spend-
ing 2 hours or more playing outdoors accumulated 6.71 more minutes of MVPA each day (27%
increase on average) on weekdays, and 7.71 more minutes of MVPA each day (38% increase on
average) on weekend days, in comparison to those playing for less than 30 minutes on weekdays.
Similar to previous research (Brockman, Jago, & Fox, 2010; Cleland et al., 2010), our results
suggest that for both boys and girls, encouraging children to spend more time playing outdoors
may be a relatively low-cost and easily implemented strategy to promote physical activity if par-
ental safety concerns can be alleviated. Given the cross-sectional nature of the current study,
experimental research is required to conﬁrm this potential.
The development of an active play target or benchmark would be helpful for assessing
whether children are getting sufﬁcient amounts of active play (AHKC, 2013). During a school
week for elementary school children, one hour per day may not be an unreasonable expectation
given a common two- to three-hour window between the end of the school day and typical dinner
time. However, care is needed in not assuming that children in Toronto are homogenous in having
Figure 1. Effect plot showing the correlation between the hours of outdoor play and physical activity level
(n= 736). The ﬁgure plots results from a linear regression model. Effects are adjusted for age and sex of the
child. The dotted (red) lines represent the 95% conﬁdence interval bracket.
International Journal of Play 91
access to a regular dinner or a ‘free’two-hour window in the afternoon. Additionally, some play
may take place after dinner and in the early evening.
In the current study, the majority of children (53%) were spending less than one hour playing
outdoors on a typical weekday. This changed on weekends with the majority of children (65%)
playing for at least one hour or more. This most likely reﬂects an increase in discretionary
time of both child and caregiver on weekends, while highlighting the importance of distinguishing
between weekdays and weekends in future research and intervention. The ﬁndings are not dissim-
ilar from results of the 2009–2011 Canada Health Measures Survey where parents reported that
their 5- to 11-year-olds spent 4.1 hours per week of physical activity outside of school while par-
ticipating in unorganized activities, whether alone or with a friend. This equates to less than one
hour per school day. Identifying how much time a child should spend playing outdoors is not an
easily answered question. However, identifying a benchmark would provide a basis for future
Table 4. Adjusted ordered logit model of the hours of outdoor play (n= 859).
Hours of play (week day) Hours of play (weekend)
Coef. (SE) pCoef. (SE) p
Boy (reference: girl) 0.58 (0.13) .000 0.45 (0.12) .000
Age −0.00 (0.09) .962 −0.12 (0.09) .164
Vehicle per licensed driver in HH 0.08 (0.16) .624 −0.02 (0.16) .881
At least one adult HH member is a part-time
worker or homemaker (reference: all adults are
−0.02 (0.13) .909 0.42 (0.13) .002
Low-income neighbourhood −0.03 (0.17) .878 −0.22 (0.17) .197
Distance to nearest park (km) −0.58 (0.55) .288 0.38 (0.53) .470
Distance to nearest school (km) 0.00 (0.35) .994 −0.16 (0.35) .652
Park area per square kilometre within
0.19 (0.86) .828 0.83 (0.85) .328
Parental perception of neighbourhood
There are not enough sidewalks −0.22 (0.22) .300 0.00 (0.21) .986
The roads are not attractive enough for a child to
−0.08 (0.20) .673 −0.22 (0.20) .275
I/we are worried about our child interacting with
−0.32 (0.14) .019 −0.35 (0.13) .010
Most drivers go too fast while driving in my
−0.30 (0.13) .025 −0.15 (0.13) .255
People are out and about, talking, and doing
things with one another
0.56 (0.14) .000 0.57 (0.14) .000
There are lots of shops and restaurants I can walk
to in my neighbourhood
0.13 (0.14) .348 0.38 (0.14) .006
I think I live in a safe neighbourhood 0.20 (0.16) .221 −0.03 (0.17) .853
Constant 1.08 (1.01) .282 2.60 (0.99) .009
Threshold parameter μ
1.60 (0.07) .000 1.29 (0.06) .000
Threshold parameter μ
4.03 (0.13) .000 2.77 (0.08) .000
Log likelihood (constant only) −1078.091 −1143.803
Log likelihood (full model) −1046.156 −1104.927
Chi-squared 63.88, df = 15 (p< .000) 77.75, df = 15 (p< .000)
Note: HH, household. Hours of play was measured as a categorical variable that includes four classes: <30 minutes, 30
minutes to 1 hour, 1–2 hours, and >2 hours. Coefﬁcients in bold are signiﬁcant at p< .05.
92 G. Faulkner et al.
monitoring efforts, while offering parents and caregivers some indication of what they should be
encouraging and supporting when safe and feasible given the local context and needs of the child.
Initial work is required in developing methods of accurately assessing time spent in outdoor active
The second objective of this study was to explore the correlates of outdoor playing time in
terms of parental perceptions of the neighbourhood environment and access to outdoor play facili-
ties such as parks and school playgrounds; in doing so, our ﬁndings point to some consistencies
that are clearly emerging in the literature. First, girls spend less time playing outdoors than boys.
Based on an international survey, signiﬁcantly more boys in all countries played outside or on a
playground than girls (63% compared to 53%) (Singer, Singer, D’Agostino, & DeLong, 2009). A
cross-sectional study in Switzerland similarly reported girls engaging less in outdoor play and this
gender difference became more pronounced with age (Bringolf-Isler et al., 2010). This is not an
unexpected ﬁnding in the light of extensive research of gender normalization (Butler, 1990) that
may shape both girls’and boys’experiences of, and engagement in, certain types of play and be-
haviour (Holloway & Valentine, 2000; Markula & Pringle, 2006). Intervention may require
gender-speciﬁc strategies in increasing outdoor playtime in order to reach those girls and boys
whose lives and environments are prescribed by contemporary gender norms (Browne, Lim, &
Brown, 2007; Massey, 1994). Moreover, as gender, race, and class are thought to intersect
(Puwar, 2004; Razack, 2002), any interventions in an urban centre like Toronto require careful
consideration of the diversity of children in the city.
The accessibility of play facilities (i.e. to park and school) was not associated with a child’s
outdoor play. Most children in the sample could be considered to be able to easily access neigh-
bourhood parks (average distance: 0.25 ± 0.12 km) and school grounds (average distance: 0.36 ±
0.19 km). Indeed, the majority of Canadian parents, children, and youth report that they have
access to programmes, parks, and playgrounds (AHKC, 2013). There is a clear distinction to
be made between access and actual usage –clearly; building more parks and playgrounds is
not the answer to increasing outdoor play in the studied area of Toronto.
Parental perception of the neighbourhood environment is reported to be more important than
both access to play-related land uses (e.g. presence of a yard) in terms of outdoor time (Cleland
et al., 2010) and population density in terms of outdoor playtime (Bringolf-Isler et al., 2010).
Having concerns about their child interacting with strangers was a consistent correlate of
outdoor play throughout the week, and this concern is commonly the most cited reason for restrict-
ing outdoor play (Family Kids and Youth/Research Now, 2010). In the current study, a child was
more likely to play outside for a longer period in a neighbourhood where ‘people are out and about’.
These perceptions may offer the parent a sense of personal safety for their child by providing oppor-
tunities for social interaction and a greater sense of ‘eyes on the street’. Holt, Lee, Millar, and
Spence (2015) extend this analogy by suggesting that safety concerns can be alleviated by more
‘eyes on where children play’. For example, by prompting groups of children to play outdoors
together, providing social opportunities (e.g. mass play dates), and encouraging parents to get to
know their neighbours to create a sense of community and neighbourhood cohesion (Aarts,
Wendel-Vos, van Oers, van de Goor, & Schuit, 2010). Such strategies may not be easily
implemented in the light of broader demographic trends of increasing workforce participation
by parents and smaller family size which all reduce neighbourhood foot trafﬁc and opportunities
for interactions with neighbours (Witten, Kearns, Carroll, Asiasiga, & Tava’e, 2013).
Notably, other environmental perception-related correlates of outdoor play duration, particu-
larly those related to a child’s safety from trafﬁc and strangers, were different for a typical
weekday versus a typical weekend day. On a typical weekend day, a child was more likely to
play outside for a longer period in a neighbourhood with many shops and restaurants within a
walkable distance. On weekends and with more available discretionary time for some parents,
International Journal of Play 93
walkability may facilitate the escorting of their child to play opportunities. Parental concerns of
fast trafﬁc were a signiﬁcant barrier to a child’s outdoor playtime only on a week day. Perhaps
safety concerns become more salient on days where the child cannot be supervised during the
day due to work commitments and heavier trafﬁc during school days. Increasing trafﬁc
calming measures, reducing speed limits, and increasing numbers of crossing guards may contrib-
ute to improving safety and reducing parental concerns. Such strategies could be implemented
within Safe Routes to School programmes which have been shown to reduce school-aged ped-
estrian risk (Dimaggio & Li, 2013). While the actual causes of these differences cannot be deter-
mined, it again highlights the need to distinguish weekdays and weekends, and potentially that
interventions may need to be tailored for speciﬁc days of the week.
This study has a number of limitations and strengths. In terms of limitations, we assessed a
limited number of perceptual neighbourhood characteristics and objectively measured environ-
mental variables that primarily describe physical access to outdoor play-related land uses (i.e. dis-
tance to parks, schools, and neighbourhood park area). Additionally, we used straight line distance
to these locations and this may not reﬂect actual travel distance or time. Future research should
incorporate other objective measures, particularly those reﬂecting safety (e.g. crime rates and
trafﬁc volume), and informal play areas such as the presence of sidewalks (Aarts, de Vries, van
Oers, & Schuit, 2012), in examining the correlates of outdoor playtime. Additionally, there may
be other unmeasured psychosocial factors, as well as other economic, physical, cultural, and
social geographies of exclusions, that may prevent children from playing (Fusco, 2012; Witten
et al., 2013). The relative role of the child’s agency, perception of the environment, and their pre-
ferences for different types of play was not assessed. These weaknesses should be considered in the
light of some signiﬁcant strengths, including the objective measurement of physical activity, a fra-
mework that was purposefully sampled across different types of neighbourhoods in terms of era of
development and socio-economic status, and examining differences by weekday and weekend.
These ﬁndings should inform an emerging set of policy and community-based initiatives in
Canada by providing critical evidence of how a child’s outdoor play may help them reach rec-
ommended levels of physical activity, and by emphasizing the importance of perceptions of
the neighbourhood environment. Experimental research is required in determining whether chan-
ging these perceptions increases a child’s opportunity to engage in outdoor play. However, we
acknowledge concerns about ‘instrumentalizing’play by narrowly focusing on the physical
health beneﬁts of play and considering it as a tool to achieve other beneﬁts (Alexander, Frohlich,
& Fusco, 2012; Lester & Russell, 2008). This may lead to a decrease in opportunities for free
play; ‘paradoxically’, through the promotion of play as a purposeful activity for a productive
end, play can no longer be fully free (Frohlich, Alexander, & Fusco, 2012, p. 3). Increased phys-
ical activity is just one of the many, perhaps unintended, side effects of play. Continued dialogue
will be required in balancing the promotion of play for such important public health consequences
with the risk that we lose the essence of what makes play so special. While doing so, we should be
working towards creating the sociocultural, geographic, and economic conditions where more
parents and caregivers feel conﬁdent in routinely telling their kids to ‘go outside and play’.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
This research was funded by the Built Environment, Obesity and Health Strategic Initiative of the
Heart and Stroke Foundation, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
94 G. Faulkner et al.
Notes on contributor
Guy Faulkner is a Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of
Toronto, and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research-Public Health Agency of Canada (CIHR-PHAC)
Chair in Applied Public Health. Broadly, his research has focused on two interrelated themes: the develop-
ment and evaluation of physical activity interventions; and physical activity and mental health.
Raktim Mitra is an Assistant Professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson Univer-
sity, Canada. His research focuses broadly on the interaction between the neighbourhood environment, active
transportation and physical activity. Recent scholarly publications have explored various aspects of chil-
dren’s outdoor mobility and activity participation.
Ron Buliung is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto Mis-
sissauga. His research focuses on the everyday lives of children and youth. He studies links between trans-
port planning and policy, the built environment and children’s health. He is a member of the international
editorial board of the Journal of Transport Geography.
Caroline Fusco is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the Uni-
versity of Toronto. Her research interests include children’s play, geographies of sport, physical activity and
cultural environments, feminist post-structuralist theories, (ab)uses of animals in sport, ethnography and
qualitative methods. She loves cycling and walking in Toronto’s urban park spaces with her dog and, of
course, playing with her seven-year-old son.
Michelle Stone is an Assistant Professor in the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie Uni-
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