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
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
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’.