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Kids play road hockey in Edmonton on Wednesday, September 22, 2004. Active Healthy Kids Canada released its annual Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth on Tuesday which paints a grim picture of the activity levels of many Canadian youngsters.

JOHN ULAN/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Active play is disappearing from the lives of Canadian children, in part because of parents' fear of letting kids play outdoors, according to a new report by Active Healthy Kids Canada.

In its annual report card released on Tuesday, Active Healthy Kids Canada gave a letter grade of F to both the physical activity levels and screen-based sedentary behaviours of today's children and youth. According to the report, 46 per cent of Canadian kids get three hours or less of active play per week and spend nearly eight hours a day in front of screens.

The report also found 58 per cent of Canadian parents say they are very concerned about keeping their children safe and feel they have to be over-protective. Mark Tremblay, chief scientific officer of the organization, called this an "excessive fear of the outdoors."

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Kids who are allowed to play outside in their neighbourhoods may be in no more danger than children were a generation ago, but try telling that to many parents. Lenore Skenazy, a parent who is author of the blog Free-Range Kids, said she understands the reason for this "helicopter parenting."

"When you read stuff about the Tori Stafford murder case or baby knee pads for when they start to crawl or schools prohibiting playing with balls because they might get a concussion, I'm not surprised parents are getting excessively worried," said Ms. Skenazy, whose show on Slice called Bubble Wrap Kids helped Toronto and New York families overcome such concerns.

"Your fear ... is putting your kid at risk of something far less dramatic, like obesity ... and something that's more likely to happen than getting snatched off the street," she said.

Active Healthy Kids Canada's report shows the continued trend of too much screen time and too little active play is proof that efforts to turn the tide against obesity have so far failed. The proportion of kids who play outside after school dropped 14 per cent over the past decade.

"There's no evidence that we're improving or making a dent," Dr. Tremblay added.

Research shows that as well as the obvious health benefits, physical activity is linked to academic success. But Tuesday's report card found that the proportion of students who get the recommended 150 minutes of physical education per week ranges from 15 to 65 per cent depending on their grade level.

In a recent series on childhood obesity called Fit to Learn, The Globe and Mail revealed that individual schools are taking matters into their own hands rather than waiting for the curriculum to catch up, and reaping the academic benefits.

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Chris Markham, executive director of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, said the province should step up. Its newly updated health and physical education curriculum is still under review two years after the Liberal government backed away from certain controversial sexual education topics. "Educators at the elementary and secondary level have been left in limbo, ... and as a result, students are suffering," Mr. Markham said.

Given the opportunity, 92 per cent of Canadian kids said they would choose playing with friends over watching TV, so Judith Down, director of the Alberta Centre for Active Living, says parents can try organizing play dates in the parks with a rotating shift of parent supervisors, or making a buddy system. She also recommended indoor gym activities and setting up backyard play areas when available.

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