Active play is a key behavior that contributes to overall physical activity in children and youth. In 2022, the ParticipACTION Report Card gave children and youth’s active play a D- grade, based on the percentage of children and youth who engage in active play and non-organized/unstructured leisure activities for several hours a day.
What is active play?
Active play is unstructured, child-led, often spontaneous physical activity which happens during leisure time. It can happen alone, with friends or with family. Importantly, active play is perceived enjoyable by the child. The play tends to be unsupervised, or minimally supervised, as appropriate to each child’s age and developmental stage.
Active play can include such things as:
- Heights - climbing a tree
- Speed - going for a bike ride, sledding
- Use of tools - building a fort
- Elements of nature - playing near water
- Rough and tumble play - wrestling, playing tag
- Disappearing - hiding behind a rock or a tree
- Unstructured physical activities or sports - dancing to music, playing basketball in the driveway
What active play is not?
- Organized sports, scheduled activities or guided by rules, time limits or requiring equipment
- School-based physical education
- Playing active video games
- Play that is known to be harmful or dangerous - skating on thin ice, a preschooler going to the park alone
Active play happens mainly outdoors and this allows children:
- The freedom to shout and make noise
- More space to move around
- Places to hide or explore
- To be messy
- Fresh air and sunlight
When children are outside, they move more, sit less and play longer.
Why is active play so important?
When a child engages in active play, they can gain many health benefits, such as:
- Better health, growth and development
- Stronger hearts, muscles and bones
- Improved self-esteem and social skills including conflict resolution, problem solving, sharing
- Enhanced motor skill development and physical literacy - climbing, kicking, throwing, jumping
- Increased independence such as learning to test physical limits and boundaries, decision making
- Improvement in thinking skills, promoting creativity and encouraging self-esteem
- Better academic performance
- An opportunity to have fun with friends and family
- Learning first-hand about nature, the weather and the seasons
How much activity should a child get?
It is recommended that children engage in active play for several hours a day. At a minimum, children should get 60 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous physical activity.
Enjoy active play in all types of weather
Playing in all types of weather can be fun and very engaging. Jumping in puddles during a soft rain or building a snowman on a snowy day can be great fun. Check out the tips below for outdoor play in winter, spring, summer and fall and get outside in the rain, sun or snow. But remember, in extreme weather conditions, take shelter and stay inside.
Ideas to encourage active play
Ideas for parents
It can be hard to find a balance with your child’s activities and responsibilities. Here are some tips to try to get more active play in their week:
- Have outdoor time as a regular part of the day
- Balance scheduled activities with active play time
- Encourage children to play in natural outdoor spaces
- Limit children’s screen time
- Allow children to take risks so that they can have fun while learning to identify and manage risks in all areas of their lives
- Arrange a play date in the backyard or at the park away from electronic devices
- Allow children to be imaginative, turning outdoor spaces into castles or ships
- Step back and let your child play
Ideas for schools
It can be challenging to incorporate active play into the school day but keeping it simple can help. Below are some tips for schools to encourage more active play for the students:
- Regularly embrace the outdoors for learning, socialization and physical activity opportunities in various weather conditions
- Choose natural elements for the school yard over pre-fabricated playgrounds and paved areas
- Examine existing policies and reconsider those that pose a barrier to active outdoor play
- Allow children to engage in unstructured active play in the school yard
- For more information on physical activity in schools, see york.ca/healthyschools
Nature Backpacks get kids outdoors and physically active
When kids have the chance to be outside they move more and sit less plus have the additional opportunity to become engaged in nature including trees, bugs, birds and flowers. Research shows that children and youth who spend time in nature improve academically, have better attention spans, are more physically active and better cope with everyday life.1 Nature can become more exciting with the addition of a magnifying glass, binoculars, books and identification sheets. The Nature Backpack library loan program offers families and children these resources to explore nature.
The Nature Backpack Library Loan Program has seven different themed backpacks that can be borrowed from various York Region libraries. The various themes of the nature backpacks include:
- Explore Outdoors – a general nature backpack
- Buds, Blossoms and Leaves – focus on wildflowers, shrubs and trees
- Things with Wings – focus on birds, butterflies, bees, moths and dragonflies
- Who’s Been Here? – focus on animals, tracking and animal evidence
- Creepy Crawly Critters – focus on spiders, slugs, bugs and centipedes
- Splish, Splash, Splosh – focus on aquatic habitats and the organisms found there
- Winter Outdoor Fun – focus on learning about nature in the winter
There are a variety of materials and resources in each backpack. Items vary depending on the theme of the backpack and can include:
- Trail Guides
- Reading books
- Activity books
- A variety of activity sheets - bark rubbing activity, nature bingo, how to use a compass
- Magnifying glass
- Wildlife identification sheets
Nature Backpacks can be found in the following libraries: Aurora, East Gwillimbury (both branches), Georgina (all branches), Newmarket, Markham (Aaniin Branch) and Vaughan (Pierre Berton Branch).
If you are an organization such as a library or school and you would like more information on creating your own set of nature backpacks, please email @email
If you are a parent or caregiver and not able to borrow a backpack from the library, why not create your own nature backpack. Simple items can be gathered together and put in a backpack or bag ready to use when exploring nature. The adventure could be in your backyard, the local park, a York Regional Forest tract or a conservation area.
Remember to play and have fun while exploring!
1Connecting Canadians with Nature, An investment in the well-being of our citizens, page 3 (2014) Retrieved August 21, 2018 from https://parks-parcs.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/ConnectingCanadians-English_web.pdf
- Physical Activity Resources
- Children’s Active Play in York Region Survey - Summary Report | Infographic
- Visit your local municipality for parks and recreational programs