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Technology can make it safe for children to play outdoors again

With all of the home-based entertainment options available to kids, it can be tough to encourage them to play outside.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

I grew up in the seventies when staying home meant spending time with my parents. Cable TV barely existed and cartoons aired only on Saturday mornings. Pong wasn't exactly a captivating single player video game experience. There was no Internet to endlessly surf, no streaming video services such as Netflix, no endless rabbit holes of YouTube videos, no texting, no Snapchat and no Instagram.

Frankly, home was pretty boring, and so as a consumer of time (kids are consumers of time, too, after all), who wanted to make the most of what I had, I chose to do that which was more interesting: go outside to play.

I don't want to romanticize that playtime. Sure, I sometimes played pickup basketball, football or baseball, but I also lazily climbed trees only to hang out on high, biked very leisurely around the neighbourhood, spent countless hours trying to learn to jump a BMX bike and hung out with buddies just sitting around in their basements. Looking back, I'd only be able to fairly describe my young self as semi-active and, for the record, I was very rarely involved in organized after-school sports and activities.

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Today's kids are consumers of time, too. When faced with the decision of what to do with their precious free moments, after the meteoric rise of the past few decades' worth of technology and connectivity, staying home nowadays is likely to be far more engaging, and even far more social, than heading outside. So go figure: kids these days choose to stay home – I know I would have had I had today's home-based choices. And chances are, you would have too.

What I'm trying to say is that kids these days aren't any different from when we were kids, but the world around kids these days sure is. If we want to see kids heading outside to play, we need to re-engineer outside to make outside the more attractive, fun and interesting place to be.

One way to do that, at least for those parents whose kids are still young enough to prefer spending time with them than to doing pretty much anything else, is to head outside with your kids. Make family-based activities the norm in your household as your kids grow up and there's a great chance they'll internalize that as the norm for your future grandchildren's homes.

The government could lend a hand here, too. It could set to work on improving cycling infrastructure to assuage the fears of modern-day parents when it comes to even letting kids head off on their bikes, to refreshing dreary parks to make them more entertaining, to encouraging school boards to relax the ridiculous playground rules that in some cases prohibit playing with balls, and to urging those same schools to increase students' time available for active play.

To be honest, I'm not that hopeful regarding the ability of the aforementioned changes to lead to a remarkable resurgence of kids in our streets and parks.

Instead, I'm holding out hope for technology to once again change the world around us and the two things I'm counting on are self-driving cars and augmented reality.

Self-driving cars are already a reality, although it will likely take the next few decades to see them achieve ubiquity. Not only will their arrival lead to far safer streets (robots are better drivers than we are), but they may lead to emptier streets as they ease traffic woes by eliminating the hunt for parking spots.

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But augmented reality is what really has me excited where the word "augmented" refers to the use and wear of specialized glasses that beam images directly to our retina and in turn, allow those images to seem part of reality itself. The two companies I'm aware of working on this are Microsoft with its "Hololens" and Magic Leap, which has received $500-million (U.S.) in funding from Google, Qualcomm and Legendary Pictures.

As I wrote on my Weighty Matters blog: "Now picture the marriage of this technology, kids, and parkland. Whether it's running around within a first-person maze, or playing baseball in your local diamond Magic'ed up to look like Fenway Park, or trying to score a goal on a virtual Martin Brodeur, or playing the world's coolest game of laser tag – I can't wait to see what's in store."

Kids will play outside again, but not unless we can make outside better.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute – dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him @YoniFreedhoff. His latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work, is a national bestseller.

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