BLOG: Children’s Play in Pandemic Times


Written by Anne Burke, Memorial University

One of the most striking aspects of childhood in the modern age is the growing trend towards children spending the vast majority of their time indoors. Although the health benefits of outdoor play are well known, the reality of busy parents who rely on schools and after-schools for care is keeping children indoors for most of their days, a trend called "indoorification" (Forest School Canada, 2014, p. 5). As pandemic lockdowns kept children home and in their houses for weeks and months, this trend became even more prevalent.

The Covid-19 pandemic aside, children spending more time indoors is a result of a number of societal factors. Academic expectations placed on children has lead to less time spent outside on the average school day, as schools place a higher priority maintaining high standardized test scores in reading and mathematic outcomes. Growing numbers of two-parent working families depend on organized childcare and after-school activities, which largely take place indoors. Elsewhere, concerns over children's safety in unsupervised outdoor spaces has resulted in many urban North American children spending more and more of their time indoors (Burke, 2019). In particular, our youngest children are having less access to free play and outdoor play with its resulting benefits of positive physical and mental health (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009), while other research has shown that children's time spent outdoors is on the decline (Lee et al., 2021). The Covid-19 global pandemic lockdowns and move to online schooling has only increased the amount of time children are spending indoors. A Canadian survey by ParticipACTION in April of 2020 revealed that "less than 3% of Canadian 5-17-year-olds were meeting the minimum recommendations in the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and sleep - in contrast to 15% before the health crisis" (De Lannoy, 2020, para. 1).

Over the last twenty years, technology electronic activities and games (e.g., television, computers, mobile devices and applications) have been embraced by children at all age levels, and schools and busy parents have struggled to hold back the tide. Most adults would agree that learning to regulate technology is healthy for their children. However, pressed by the demands of work and homelife, parents often struggle to regulate their children's screen time and help their children form healthy relationships with technology. Shimi Kang, author of The Tech Solution: Creating Healthy Habits for Kids Growing Up in a Digital World, says "How we consume technology and its impact on our brain and body is very similar to how we consume food ... we have to understand what is healthy for us, what nurtures us" ("Teach Your Children", 2020).

This upward trend of children's use of digital media has continued apace, even in the face of ample evidence demonstrating the benefits of outdoor play. Research through the Children and Nature Network (2012) has shown that youth participation in outdoor activities, in general, has declined with children having 30 minutes or less of unstructured outdoor play daily, while at the same time their sedentary and screen hours have reached seven hours daily (National Wildlife Federation, 2012). There is widespread scientific agreement that this trend is a leading factor in the rise of childhood obesity rates and childhood mental health problems (Muñoz, 2009). Mark Tremblay, director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at CHEO, says that young children are not getting enough physical activity due to too much screen time. Sadly, in Canada 76 percent of children under preschool age are exceeding the daily recommended limit of 1 hour of screen time (The Canadian Press, 2017).

This indoor-ification trend is a relatively recent arrival. "The original kindergarten - the children's garden - conceived by German educator Friedrich Froebel in the 19th century, was a place where children learned through play, often in nature" (Forest School Canada, 2014, p. 5). Despite this original conception, the pendulum has swung consistently in the opposite direction, to a school day that occurs mostly indoors focused on academics, with paper and pencil assessment as evidence of learning. Indoor-ification and the increase in screen-time is even affecting children's vision - , there is an emerging health concern from optometrists that increased screen-time can lead to eye conditions such as myopia (Lee-Shanok, 2021).

A Return to Outdoor Play

However, in a year in which the Covid epidemic played havoc with families, schools, jobs and every other aspect of life, there was a surprising and unexpected gift - a return to outdoor play.

We will all remember the onset of the global pandemic crisis in March of 2020. Schools, daycare centers, and programs shut down literally overnight, and suddenly children were now at home all day without social interaction or schooling in some cases. Depending on their geographic location and age, they were either being homeschooled or doing online learning through their schoolboard. Adapting to online learning has been difficult for many teachers and families, with many technological kinks that are still being worked through (Wong, 2020, October 1). Even experienced teachers felt unprepared with the pivot to teaching their students in online classrooms (Collier & Burke, 2020). In some provinces teachers have found themselves having to improvise their teaching pedagogies as they are tasked with a hybrid online learning model, where they are expected to teach some children in class while also teaching virtually to other students at the same time. Due to this, teachers are being spread "thin" and are not able to adequately provide for the needs of all their students (Wong, 2020, October 16). Nonetheless, in highly Covid19 infected urban areas some parents opted for the virtual classroom in order to keep their children safe (Wong, 2020, October 1).


In Canada, outdoor free play became both a release and a necessity for families who were adjusting to the new normal, looking desperately for ways that their children could safely be active. Wilderness parks, backyards, wooded areas and even sidewalks were reclaimed by children and families. When shared indoor spaces were solitary and remote or even threatening, the outdoors suddenly became safe again, a place where children could exercise, play and just be themselves, to explore and learn about the world through their own senses, not guided by the affordances of the screen or the smartboard.

Figure 2. Children creating their own see-saw in a newly discovered neighborhood wooded area.
Figure 2. Children creating their own see-saw in a newly discovered neighborhood wooded area.

The Covid pandemic strengthened on-going efforts to include traditional outdoor educational practices in the curriculum, an approach widely embraced by the school community of teachers in the International ADVOST project.

The Canadian contribution to this project is exploring how personal narratives of children can reveal insight about culture and language revitalization, and how varying contexts, materials and arts-based pedagogies can diversify the ways in which children share their voice. This past year teachers, many of whom had experienced several lockdowns, happily embraced the outdoor classroom when their students returned to school.

Teaching with land-based pedagogies in Newfoundland has been the lead of workshop leader Laura Molyneux. Laura is the Executive Director of Cloudberry Forest School and a National facilitator and practitioner trainer with the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada. As a Canadian partner with the Canadian research group, she has been working with teachers exploring ways in which children's play is enriched through land- based pedagogies. Building imaginative play through nature was one of her workshops as pictured in figure 1. Teachers had to make a habitat for an imaginary creature they had story created at a local pond near the school. 

Figure 3. Teachers Building a habitat
Figure 3. Teachers Building a habitat

Teachers at both sites had committed to spending one hour outside with children daily. This can be for free play or for exploring nature and stories. Teachers have been sharing their experiences with each other through Twitter. As the study proceeds we are seeing how technology can grow alongside children's play.

It is hoped that as Canadian society gradually returns to a post-Covid normal, the lessons this year has taught us about the value of outdoor play will not be discarded. While parents and educators have often struggled this year, many have also noted that their children, having spent hours playing outside every day, are healthier and happier. In a year of great loss, for that at least, we can all be grateful.

Anne Burke works as a professor in Literacy Education and Early Learning at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, she is also the Project Lead at Discovery Learning Centre. Burke is a member of the ADVOST project.


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2009). Many children have suboptimal vitamin D levels.

Teach your children to think of screen time like food and regulate junk, says expert. (2020, August 17).

Collier, D. &, Burke, A. (2020, September 15). Teachers are on the front lines with students in the coronavirus pandemic. The Conversation.

De Lannoy, L. (2020, July 8) National survey of children and youth shows COVID-19 restrictions linked with adverse behaviours. Outdoor Play Canada.  

Forest School Canada. (2014). Forest and Nature School in Canada: A head, heart, hands approach to outdoor learning.

Lee, E.Y., Bains, A., Hunter, S., Ament, A., Brazo-Sayavera, J., Carson, V., Hakimi, S., Huang, W.Y., Janssen, I., Lee, M., Lim, H., Santos Silva, D.A. &, Tremblay, M.S. (2021). Systematic review of the correlates of outdoor play and time among children aged 3-12 years International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 

Lee-Shanok, P. (2021, March 27). Is your child's eyesight getting worse? It could be due to online learning, experts say. CBS News. 

National Wildlife Federation. (2014). Health benefits. 

Muñoz, S. (2009). Children in the outdoors: A literature review. Sustainable Development Research Centre. 

The Canadian Press. (2017, November 20). Toddlers need at least 3 hours of physical activity a day, new guidelines suggest. CBS News. 

Wong, J. (2020, October 1). Virtual schools have faced a steep learning curve, but parents still want in as COVID-19 cases rise. CBC., J. (2020, October 16). As school boards blend in-person and virtual classes, criticism emerges for hybrid model. CBC.