Category Archives: mobility

With Mobility there is Freedom and Adventure

Letting our children loose to explore their neighbourhoods, to get from home to school and back, or to play with friends just ain’t what it used to be. For over 40 years, kids’ independent mobility has been in a state of progressive decline. Visualize a series of ever decreasing concentric circles that in the most extreme instances become so constricted that children do not leave their homes without an adult in tow. Empowering – no. Fun – not much.

The fear of stranger danger, of motor vehicle traffic and of being judged as an irresponsible, or even worse, a neglectful parent are key reasons cited by parents and caregivers for restricting mobility. These fears are even more pronounced in relation to girls.


We have much greater concerns and anxieties about our               daughters than we do about our sons                                                    Guy Faulkner, UBC


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Running Free: Children’s Independent Mobility, a new documentary produced by Dr. Guy Faulkner¹ a professor at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) School of Kinesiology, is an optimistic narrative advocating for greater freedoms than is currently the norm. The film premiered last week in Vancouver and concluded with a panel discussion that has been captured as a podcast.

Three families share the journeys that lead to their children being empowered to get around more independently. Their stories are interspersed with research-based insights from three members of the UBC community – Dr. Faulkner, Dr. Mariana Brussoni and PhD candidate, Negin Riazi. Family members and researchers speak from their own experiences and expertise to build the case for increased independence.


When you give them the independence what you’re saying is I believe in you – you can do this. That’s a really great positive message for your child to hear                                                                   Transit Girl Mother


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One of the most striking measurements documenting the free fall of children’s independent mobility is the reduced numbers of kids going to school under their own steam. Two of the three family stories in the film focus on kids getting to school by transit and by walking school bus without parental support.

The day after the documentary’s premiere, I have an engaging conversation with a buoyant Riazi. Her energy levels are still high following the successful screening and lively panel discussion. She hopes the documentary will be a useful tool that will help kids to get a better shake in the mobility sweepstakes. She notes that while the challenges of the mobility – physical activity – outdoor play – mental health continuum are more prevalent in higher income countries the issues are also resonating on a global level due in part to ever expanding urbanization.

Riazi believes that with a collaborative push enlisting parents, schools and neighbourhoods we can improve on the current state of affairs and get the kids moving – independently that is. There is much at stake ranging from confidence building and risk-based decision making to enabling outdoors play and increasing the deplorably low levels of physical activity in kids.


What always seems to come up is the parental perception about the environment – how they feel about traffic, stranger danger      and these are always recurring…                                                             Negin Riazi, UBC


The double whammy fear of loss and public censure can be paralyzing even in its imagining. Never mind how irrational the thought process may be, the gut wrenching is familiar to many of us as parents and caregivers. When our son first started riding off into the proverbial sunset at about 10-years-old, I was a basket case running through terrible scenarios and tying myself up in knots if he didn’t reappear back home at exactly the agreed upon time. I started to chill relatively quickly but there is always a little niggling voice squirreled away in some dark recess whispering away, talking up those unfounded fears.

Now if I get spooked that something could be going wrong with one of the kids, I think back to my own childhood. At 11-years-old, two-wheelers were our trusty touring ticket to a two square mile area of suburban Toronto. This was an area  that experienced high traffic volumes and included a mix of residential, commercial and riverine land use. A few years later, I was given free rein to travel solo in daylight hours on the Paris métro system. These were not extraordinary privileges. My peers had similar independence and freedoms.

Our youngest – self-portrait

The worst scrapes I encountered left no permanent scars. At six-years-old, I remember the terror of being lost. I missed my turning coming home for lunch from school. The snowbanks were piled so high that every street looked identical and I unknowingly passed our street and continued two more blocks before turning down a street that didn’t look at all familiar. I was rescued by the mailman who took me home and reunited a bleating boy with his mom. After a hug, getting my tears dried and a warm lunch I was good to go. I need to keep this in mind as our girls come on stream for increased independence. The youngest is just on the cusp….

As the documentary unfolds the families chart their progress toward independent kid mobility. They are convinced of its merits on a number of fronts. The researchers set the scene. With a soft and empathetic touch they call into question unfounded parental fears and offer encouragement based on research.


It’s important for parents to know that play is a safe activity. There is the opportunity to provide them those chances to get out, to play, to take risks because the likelihood of something serious happening is incredibly low.                                                      Mariana Brussoni, UBC


About three-quarters of the way through the documentary, the viewer is introduced to Philip Martin, founder and chair of Waterloo, Ontario’s Cycling into the Future. A retired teacher, Martin works with with grades 5 and 6 kids to ensure they have a strong foundation in the safety rules for biking and can make minor repairs. Brilliant – a big boost to independent mobility. Do you remember your first two wheeler? Mine was a red CCM. When I bike now, aside from the uphill huffing and puffing, it’s an exhilarating experience that never fails to transport me back to childhood. All hail the bike and those who are working to make our urban spaces more bike friendly.

There is no template, no one size fits all when bestowing this gift of independence. Needs, maturity levels and comfort with decision-making vary with each child. Kids have a variety of transportation choices – skateboards, inline skates, scooters, bikes of all sorts and public transit. Insights from the experts combined with real world stories make this documentary a solid example of what the academic world refers to as knowledge translation – moving research into the hands of people who can put it to practical use.

There are also unintended bonus consequences to increasing independent mobility for kids. It enables them to experience alternatives to car culture through active transportation and transit. Getting woke to this choice will align well for those youth and young people who are grappling with how they will influence policy, decision-making and action around climate change. It can also make them prepared, on the travel side at least, to participate in climate strike actions…

If you or someone you know is curious about independent mobility or is struggling with how to integrate it into family life, this documentary could serve as a valuable touchstone. Pull up a seat and get comfortable. Each of the three family stories are relatable and profile a variety of different considerations that can help inform parental choices and decisions.

 

 


Running Free: Children’s Independent Mobility
Available on YouTube
Running Time – 26:25
Producer – Guy Faulkner
Director – Donna Gall
Completion Date – April 2019


1. An earlier mobility study involving Faulkner was the subject of a popular 2015 PlayGroundology post – Goin’ Mobile – Keep ‘Em Movin’.

Goin’ Mobile – Keep ‘Em Movin’

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…

article-2300657-18C0F5B0000005DC-258_966x412Glasgow 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.

Playground?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.

6348404432_ba24b8ec68_oChildren 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.