As recently as 50 years ago, a study on children’s independent mobility (CIM) would have reported that many kids ranged far and wide with little explicit parental supervision. I was a product of those times growing up in suburban Toronto.
Back in the day, most of us adventured independently on foot, bicycle and public transit. By the age of 10 or 11, we could find ourselves miles away from home exploring the wildness of the Don River Valley, catching a movie at the Willow Theatre, playing shinny at the outdoor rink, or just skylarking in random pursuit of fun. Those were the golden days of free-range kids…
Glasgow boys from the Gorbals district play in the Corporation Burial Grounds shortly after the Second World War. Photographer – Bert Hardy, © Getty Images.
In just two generations there has been a seismic shift in the range, frequency and independence of kids’ mobility. A recently published study based on research carried out in Toronto, Canada illustrates that for many kids, discovery of the physical world around them, a world unfettered by hovering adults, or caregivers just ain’t what it used to be.
“Adult supervision has become a central characteristic of the modern childhood experience.”
The ‘S’ word is antithetical to pushing boundaries, independently assessing risk, or just playing for the pure and simple sake of it.
Children in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Photo Credit – Jeff Attaway. License – (CC BY 2.0).
Do parental perceptions of the neighbourhood environment influence children’s independent mobility? Evidence from Toronto, Canada examines three CIM related questions.
(1) Is independent mobility associated with children’s physical activity levels?
(2) Do parental perceptions of the neighbourhood environment influence CIM?
(3) What role do parents’ mobility-related attitudes have in influencing CIM?
Where do these three questions lead? The short answer is that there are correlations linked to independent mobility associated with some of the considerations/questions above. For instance, highly mobile and independent kids were likely to accumulate up to 19.5% more physical activity per day.
Other findings include:
- kids from low income neighbourhoods are likely to have higher livels of CIM
- 65% of grade 5 and 6 kids in Toronto had some measure of independent time outdoors without adults;
- parents who opted for walking, biking or public transit were more likely to have kids with higher levels of CIM;
- boys enjoy more CIM than girls – parental decisions in this regard are gendered.
The study is available in Urban Studies 2014, Vol. 51 (16). The authors – Raktim Mitra (Ryerson), Guy EJ Faulkner (University of Toronto), Ron N Buliung (University of Toronto) and Michelle R Stone (Dalhousie University) – are hopeful that this research will help to support policy development aiming to increase CIM.
Given the drop off in outdoor play, the prevalence of electronic gaming and scheduled, busy lives it’s not a moment too soon. There is cause to champion a larger scope for free-range play and a return to common sense. For any kids living in the free-range zone, there is a high probability that they know fear, take risks and inhale adventure all the while increasing their CIM. For a great source of information on the free-range movement check Lenore Skenazy’s writings or her recent reality show, World’s Worst Mom on Discovery Life Channel.
Children playing in the Canadian Arctic. Photo Credit – Rosemary Gilliat. License – (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
When it comes down to the crunch and you’re thinking about your own kids it can be hard. I had to fight against an urge to restrict our son’s independence and mobility when he turned 8-years-old. Fortunately my wife was there to bring me back to earth, to remind me that we were both the beneficiaries of free-ranging as kids and that we have no reason not to entrust our own children with this gift. As irrational as it is, I still sometimes get knots in my stomach when our lad is off with his friends far from our care.
That’s when I sing this little ditty to the tune of Home, Home on the Range.
Home, home on the range
Where the children all go outside to play
And never is seen a portable screen
And the kids can breathe fresh air all day
Home, home on the range
Where kids just travel about
And never is heard a disparaging word
And the kids have no time to pout
Oh give me a town where the kids they abound
Where the wild is not too far away
Where always is heard an encouraging word
To get the kids outside to play
Start ’em moving young and get them outdoors. PlayGroundology friend Gill Connell has plenty of great ideas to get the kids moving at Moving Smart. Move on over and check them out….
Finally, listen up to the story of Maryland parents charged for letting their kids play and walk alone broadcast earlier this evening on CBC Radio’s – As it Happens. You may be incredulous to learn how the courts ruled.