A 2013 study suggests that 58 per cent of Canadian parents walked to school when they were young, but only 28 per cent of their own children do so today.
Photo Credit: Phil Hossack/Canadian Press

Children unsupervised outdoors are more active: study

Children who are allowed to go places by themselves or with friends are more physically active than those who are constantly supervised by their parents, according to a new study.

Many parents feel they must accompany their children outdoors. © Dave Chidley/Canadian Press

Researchers analysed results of a survey of more than 1,000 parents and caregivers of children between the ages of 10 and 12 in the city of Toronto. They looked at how children travelled to school, the chances they had to play with friends by themselves and to explore their area on their own.

Few children circulate unsupervised

“What we found is that more than one third of parents in Toronto constantly supervise their kids. They never allow their kids to go out on their own,” says Raktim Mitra, an assistant professor of urban planning at Ryerson University and lead author of the study. Only 16 per cent said they either frequently or always let their children travel independently.


Mitra notes that the model of parenting in Canada and much of the western world has changed. Parents now feel they must watch their children. Their perception is that they are at risk even though the crime rate, for example in Toronto, is at its lowest in 50 or 60 years.

Better mental and physical health

Previous studies have found that children who move about their neighbourhoods independently have more friends, a better sense of community and improved cognitive ability, says Mitra.  They find children have better mental health and this study suggests they also have better physical health.

“Those who enjoyed at least some level of independence, were somewhere between 14 and 19 per cent more physically active than those who are constantly supervised.”

Prof. Raktim Mitra wants parents to weigh the risk of not supervising their children outdoors against the benefit of extra physical activity it provides. © Clifton Li

Children are overweight and obese

Children in Toronto are only getting on average 30 minutes of physical activity per day, he found. Health authorities say they should get 60 minutes per day. This is an increasingly important issue in Canada and other western countries where a lack of activity is contributing to overweight and obesity in children.

“It’s very important then for us to find ways to make them more physically active whichever way we can,” says Mitra. “This one aspect of their urban mobility which often remains less discussed in our policy or advocacy has that potential.”

The discussion about letting children go to school or play outside independently has focussed on the risks, Mitra says. Parents need to understand the benefits as well. “Over time we hope this will bring a change in behaviour.”

Categories: Health, Society

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