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Unsupervised outings help children be more active

Professor Raktim Mitra

Children who are permitted to explore their own neighbourhoods without adult supervision are more physically active, finds a new study led by Ryerson University professor Raktim Mitra, School of Urban and Regional Planning. Photo: Clifton Li

Would you allow your child to go to their friend’s house on their own? A new study by university researchers suggests kids who have the freedom to go to places by themselves, or with friends, are more physically active.

“Most parents feel that if they are not watching their children all the time, that’s not good parenting,” says Ryerson urban planning professor Raktim Mitra, lead author of the study. “What we wanted to see was if children were given more freedom to explore by themselves, what impact would this have on their physical health?”

Mitra and his research team were interested in looking at how children travelled to school, the opportunities they had to play spontaneously with friends by themselves and exploring their surroundings on their own.

They analyzed data from a survey of more than 1,000 parents and caregivers of Grade 5 and 6 students attending 16 public elementary schools across the City of Toronto. The schools surveyed included those in both low-income and affluent areas, and in inner-urban and inner-suburban neighbourhoods.

The adults were asked a series of questions on topics including: how often they permitted their children to go out on their own or with friends, perceptions of their neighbourhoods, preferences towards modes of transportation (walking, cycling, driving, public transport), and the age and gender of their children.

To monitor their physical activity, each child wore an activity monitor for seven days to determine the amount of time spent each day engaging in some form of exercise.

The study found that overall, 35 per cent of parents or caregivers report they never allow their children to go out on their own or with friends. Only 16 per cent said they either frequently or always permitted their children to travel on their own independently.

On average, children living in Toronto would accumulate about 30 minutes of physical activity per day. However, children who were permitted to go places by themselves were nearly 20 per cent more physically active than those who were never allowed to go out without adult supervision.

Parents’ perception of their social environment also played a big role: if they fear their children meeting strangers, they are less inclined to let their children go places without adult supervision. However, when parents have more social interaction with neighbours, their children are more apt to go places by themselves.

Parents who preferred active modes of transport – walking, cycling or public transit – were more likely to permit their children to venture out on their own as well. In addition, boys and older children were more likely to be independently mobile compared to girls and younger kids.

All of the findings tell parents one thing, says Mitra: “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.”

The co-authors of the study are Guy Faulkner and Ron Buliung, both from University of Toronto, and Michelle Stone of Dalhousie University.

The study, funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, was published in the December issue of the journal Urban Studies.

Listen to a Metro Morning interview about the study.