Are your childhood memories like mine? Days spent outdoors—rain or shine—only briefly going indoors to forage for food? During the summer, my siblings and I carved watermelons with butter knives, and in the winter we made hot chocolate from that canned powder with those tiny marshmallows that didn't exactly taste like real marshmallows. The only rules were that we had to take our shoes off before coming inside and we weren't allowed to eat too many mini marshmallows before supper.
My childhood was the kind that I'm working hard to give my own kids, if for no other reason than to get them to stay active with outdoor play. Sometimes the play is supervised (we'll play soccer) and other times I'll find something else to do and let their imagination guide the play. It's the unsupervised play that tuckers them out fastest.
A new study published in the December 2014 issue of Urban Studies backs up my hunch that unsupervised play is good for kids. Ryerson University urban planning professor Raktim Mitra was the lead author of the study, and wanted to answer a simple question: What would happen if kids were given the freedom to explore by themselves?
Researchers surveyed more than 1,000 caregivers of grades five and six students in public elementary schools across Toronto, asking questions about whether they ever let their kids go out on their own, perceptions of their neighbourhoods and their preferred transportation methods. Then, each child wore an activity monitor for seven days to determine the amount of time spent on exercise each day. On average, kids exercised 30 minutes per day, far below the recommended 60 minutes per day.
However, children who were allowed to go places by themselves were almost 20 percent more physically active than those who were never allowed to go out without adult supervision—and only 16 percent of parents said they frequently or always allow their kids to travel in the city independently. Thirty-five percent of parents reported their children were never allowed to go out on their own or with friends.
“Most parents feel that if they are not watching their children all the time, that’s not good parenting,” Mitra says. “Instead of constantly supervising your children, give your kids a chance to explore their neighbourhoods on their own. If you do that, your child can reap immense physical, social and mental health benefits down the road.”
While it's not fair to directly compare my rural roads to city streets, I believe that kids—when taught to navigate their neighbourhoods—will be that much more confident to venture out on their own. To me, this study says just as much about the importance of physical activity as it does the need to reclaim a sense of community with those who live around us.
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