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No Balls (or bikes, or skateboards) Allowed

Monday, January 25, 2010 Posted by Travis Saunders

Image by Putneypics.

An interesting story appeared in the local news late last week, when the CBC reported that two students at Ottawa's D. Roy Kennedy Public School had started a petition to be allowed to play with balls on the playground in winter time.  Why did they need a petition to play with balls on the playground???  Well it turns out that balls have been banned from D. Roy Kennedy in the winter months due to safety concerns.

From the Ottawa Citizen:

"D. Roy Kennedy principal Dana Slater says its a question of liability. “The balls get hard and they were really pegging each other. The first week of snow, it was like a M*A*S*H unit in the office,” she said Thursday. “One staff member got clocked with a basketball." 

This comes on the heels of reports that schools in both the USA and the United Kingdom have banned bicycles due to safety concerns.  Although I'm not aware of any schools in Canada that explicitly ban the use of bicycles, many ban skateboards due to fear of injury, or as with St Mary's High School in Calgary, for fear that they could be used as weapons.  Ditto for roller blades and scooters.

And while bikes may be technically allowed at most schools, that doesn't mean that their use is necessarily encouraged.  Here is the wording used by one Canadian school which publishes their student handbook online (emphasis mine):

When students bring their bicycles to school, they are responsible for them. It is impossible for school personnel to supervise bicycles, to prevent tampering, damage or theft. All bicycles should be left in the bike racks and locked with a very solid lock. It is advisable that students leave their very expensive bikes at home since most thefts have been the work of much older people with tools that cut through even the best locks.  For reasons of safety, bicycles are not to be ridden on school grounds. Again, for safety reasons, rollerblades, skateboards and scooters should not be brought to school on school days.

If you were a parent, would that paragraph make you think it's safe to let your child bike to school, given that it focuses exclusively on the risk of theft and injury? 

Child safety is obviously a very important concern, and is something that the schools are right to take seriously.  But do these rules really make kids safer in the long run?  Let's say that a child isn't allowed to skateboard to school, so he gets a drive with Mom instead.  This causes increased traffic congestion around the school, making it less safe for the kids who still commute by foot or by bike.  Don't believe me? The New York Transportation Insider reports that roughly half of all kids who are struck while walking or cycling to school are actually hit by other parents!  And of course we know that the fitness of Canadian youth has decreased dramatically over the past 30 years, a problem which will not be solved by banning our children from an ever-expanding list of physical activities (a topic which I hope to discuss in detail later this week).

It seems at times that we are creating a culture of fear around childhood physical activity, to the point that some people actually worry that children might have a heart attack if they exercise too vigorously (you would be surprised how often I've heard this concern).  I worry that the result will be a generation who are literally terrified of exercise. To wit: last year at the Bluenose Youth Run, one out-of-breath elementary school student asked my girlfriend if he was dying!  Is telling kids that physical activity is dangerous (which is exactly what we do whenever we ban an activity) really the way to ensure the health and safety of our youth?

In their recent article on the ball ban at D Roy Kennedy school here in Ottawa, the Ottawa Citizen spoke with Corrine Langill, manager of health promotion and injury prevention at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.  Here's what she had to say:

"...when it comes to injury prevention, often the easiest thing to do is ban the activity that causes the problem.“But that creates other issues,” [Langill] said.  Sometimes, the better approach is to look at where and when injuries happen, and change other factors, such as slippery surfaces or improving supervision.“You can never eliminate risk as long as there are kids”"

Amen.  This approach of minimizing risk, rather than banning activities outright, seems like a very reasonable one.  And it seems like an approach that many schools are embracing.  For example, rather than banning or discouraging bike use, many school boards are providing students with education on ways to bike to school safely, as well as providing safe locations for bikes to be locked up on school grounds.  This way the legitimate concerns about safety and theft are dealt with, while also encouraging children to adopt healthy behaviours.  This is the approach used by On the Move To School, an extremely successful program which is in place at 75 schools throughout Quebec.   

So, what can parents and community members do to ensure that their children are allowed to engage in healthy, active lifestyles while at school?  Well an obvious first step would be to discuss the issue.  Most of the teachers and principals that I know are reasonable people, who only want the best for their students.  To her credit, Principal Slater of D. Roy Kennedy has said that parents and students are welcome to dispute the ball ban at an upcoming council meeting.  I'm sure that reasonable people can come up with a plan that both increases the opportunity for physical activity, while minimizing the risk of injuries.  This is important, and it's something that we should all take very seriously.  As Principal Slater said in one of her recent interviews:

"You have to sleep at night."

Travis Saunders

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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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