Thank you to Dr. Negin Riazi, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Health Sciences at Brock University, for providing this post.
Children’s independent mobility refers to a child’s freedom to travel and play in their neighbourhood without the supervision of adults. However, there has been a steep generational decline in children’s independent mobility which is quite concerning as independent mobility is related to improvements in children’s physical activity, as well as having social (e.g., interaction with peers) and cognitive (e.g., knowledge of local landmarks, streets, routes) benefits.
What did we do?
Our recent study investigated how children and their parents negotiated children’s independent mobility within their families. We conducted interviews with 22 families (44 parents and 22 children) in the Metro Vancouver area. These 22 families were recruited from three distinct neighbourhoods including Vancouver’s Grandview-Woodland, North Vancouver’s Lonsdale, and Richmond’s Steveston neighbourhoods, all of which varied in urbanization, population density, and number of children.
What did we find?
Our findings identified four major factors that influenced children’s independent mobility.
- Parents’ own childhood experiences: Remembering the good old days
Parents who recalled positive experiences of their own independent mobility often had positive attitudes that influenced their own children’s independent mobility. Parents played a key role in helping define, support, and expand their children’s independent mobility through encouragement and in helping their children develop the necessary skills (e.g., learning the neighbourhood environment, safety precautions) to stay safe when traveling freely.
- Children’s individual characteristics: Confidence leads to competence
Children who appeared confident, could “think on their feet,” had “street smarts,” and displayed good decision-making skills helped alleviate parents’ concerns and often had higher levels of independent mobility. However, if parents were uncertain about their child’s abilities, those children had less freedom to travel freely.
- Communication, communication, communication
Children who communicated travel logistics with their parents (e.g., who they were going with, when they would return), had discussions around safety, and used technology as a communication tool (e.g., having a cellphone for emergencies) were more likely to have higher independent mobility. Additionally, communication allowed children to show their confidence, skills (e.g., ability to navigate the neighbourhood), or lack thereof and therefore helped parents assess how much independent mobility was appropriate for their child.
- The neighbourhood social environment: Good vibes in the neighbourhood
Feelings of community and safety played an important role in supporting children’s independent mobility. Safety concerns by parents and children were tempered by positive perceptions of their neighbourhood environment like neighbours looking out for each other and being familiar with people in the neighbourhood.
This study highlighted the importance of communication between parent(s) and children for helping spur independent mobility forward. Through communication children could show their confidence and skills and parents could assess whether their child was ready to travel independently, as well as impart skills through safety discussions. Additionally, a friendly neighbourhood helped families feel safe, knowing that people in the neighbourhood would help a child if needed.
Especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when children’s physical activity and outdoor play have plummeted due to provincial health restrictions, children’s independent mobility is more important than ever. The pandemic has led to a surge in the amount of time children spend on screens. Meanwhile, outdoor time has decreased, especially when contingent on parents’ schedules. Families can work toward helping children develop the skills (e.g., traffic safety), confidence (e.g., self-efficacy in navigating the neighbourhood), and competence (e.g., knowing how to ask for directions, using Google maps) to navigate their environment safely. By providing children with the opportunity to be outdoors independently, we are providing them with time in nature (which is good for their immune system and mental health), opportunities to be active (which helps with motor development, mental health, and well-being), and time away from screens.
For tips on how to build your child’s independent mobility, check out this recent article in The Conversation.
Dr. Negin Riazi is a recent PhD graduate from the School of Kinesiology at the University of British Columbia and currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Health Sciences at Brock University. Her research focuses on children’s independent mobility, population-level physical activity initiatives, and policy-level interventions.