Culture of convenience is turning our youngsters into solitary sloths Whatever happened to the free-range kid? Release the kids! It's time to unleash the children, not only so they can be physical, but so they can be children, writes Shelley Fralic.

I let my grandchildren, all under the age of 10, run wild. Literally. I let them wander in the woods, which they get to by jumping a narrow, mucky toad-filled ditch. I let them play tag in overgrown blackberry brambles and sometimes they ride their bikes without anyone following them in a car to make sure they're safe.

I let them climb the big cherry tree in my back yard, and scramble over giant rocks and logs at the beach without a safety net. I let them use hammers and screwdrivers to build things, and if they want fresh air on a road trip, or that special macaroni and cheese or some popcorn to fill their stomachs, they learn early on how to operate power windows in the car and simple appliances in the kitchen.

 And if they get a bee sting, a sliver or any other bruise or scrape that doesn't involve massive blood loss or calling an ambulance, I am inclined to say, 'Suck it up, buttercup, and go back outside and play."

In this, I take a cue from my own childhood, when my home town was covered with open fields full of grasshoppers and slithering garter snakes and when my pals and I, our pants ripped and covered in dirt, were allowed to roam about the neighbourhood in packs, the glow of the street lights in the early evening the only signal that it was time to head home for dinner.

It was a different time, yes, and things have changed. But children haven't. Children still need to run and jump and build booby traps in the bush. They need unfettered play time, not just with Lego and PlayStation but with sticks and mud and string and plastic containers to catch bugs.

They need to run wild.

grandkids Heather and Tobie near the Turku River

But these days, the free-range kid is an endangered species.

We schlep five-year-olds about the mall in strollers. We drop our kids off out front of the school instead of letting them walk the few blocks with their friends. Our youngsters are helmeted and harnessed to within an inch of their lives, and if they participate in sports, it's usually organized and bound up in so many safety rules and regulations that a game of shinny on a public street today is considered a nostalgic anachronism.

There's even a name for our new-age fussing "helicoptering "

meaning we never let them out of our sight, child-proofing every corner of their lives from the moment they're born, swathing them in risk-free layers of virtual cotton batting to protect them from themselves and the bogeyman.

No wonder our children are failing on the international scale of acceptable physical fitness. At least that's the finding of the just-released report card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth which, under the aegis of Active Healthy Kids Canada, assigned Canadian kids a D-minus for overall physical activity levels. No one, I'm guessing, is terribly surprised by that conclusion, not when you look around at what children are doing " or, more appropriately, not doing " in their spare time.

Nor is it a shock that, here in the land of plenty, where childhood obesity has reached alarming levels, we are at the back of the pack when compared to 14 other countries, ranking alongside the U.S., Ireland and Australia and slightly ahead of Scotland which, oh dear, got an F.

It's a perfect storm of circumstance, this so-called culture of convenience that has turned so many kids into sedentary sloths. Our children are captivated by technology, the 21st-century babysitter, with much of their down time spent bent over a screenful of apps, or connected to video games and movie channels.

Couple that with far too much junk food and fast food in our diets and minimal physical education in schools, and that failing grade is a no-brainer. How bad is it? So bad that an initiative called 100-in-1 Day, which hits Vancouver next month with innovative ideas for so-called creative "interventions," includes a proposal that would see parents organizing a "social walk" for neighbourhood kids going to school, as well as encouraging unorganized social interaction for children.

Or what used to be called playing.

So bad that there's a sub-genre of children's book with titles like The Dangerous Book for Boys, which details how to build a tree fort and fly a kite, as if those are foreign pursuits. So bad that we're building swimming pools, like the new one at the Edmonds Community Centre in Burnaby, without diving boards, and we are gradually sanitizing playgrounds and eliminating the outdoor concrete wading pools in Metro Vancouver's public parks, all in the name of safety and decreased liability.

We are not, in our pursuit of protection, doing our kids any favours. Perhaps it's time to unleash them, to introduce some healthy risk, not just so they can be physical and fit, but so they can be children.

Grandkids, Tobi, John and Heather and their dog at the Pansio Wharf