Beyond the Bubble Wrap – New research findings from VicHealth

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VicHealth have today announced the release of their new research report Beyond the Bubble Wrap; Understanding parents fears in allowing their children to play and travel independently. The report is a joint 3 year project by VicHealth, La Trobe University (in Victoria) and the Parenting Research Centre to seek to understand the thinking surrounding children’s lack of independent play and mobility in Australia. Given the rising levels of health associated issues surrounding lack of exercise and children’s general well-being and mental health, this IS important stuff.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter said that children who were able to play and travel without an adult and those who walk or ride to school were more likely to get the recommended one hour of physical exercise every day, which is very important given rising obesity levels.

“Victorian children are living a more inactive lifestyle, and as a consequence, increasing their risk of serious health problems, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.  In the 1960s, one in 20 children was overweight or obese. Today, that has risen to one in four, and is expected to increase to one in three by 2025. Only one in five Australian children get the recommended one hour of physical activity every day and only one in four children in Victoria walk or ride to school.

“VicHealth commissioned this research to understand parents’ fears as a barrier to physical activity and to find solutions to help parents give their children greater freedom to walk and ride to and from school and within their neighbourhood.  Getting kids active puts them on a path to good health for the rest of their lives,” Ms Rechter added.

This report is not only important however from the point of understanding why todays parents are reluctant to give their children the freedoms that they had as children themselves, but is critical in understanding as a society WHAT encourages parents to feel more comfortable in letting their children have some independence outside the home.

What was established is short through the report is that there appear to be 2 measures of parental fear in children’s independence; 1/ Safety when travelling (ie. from home to school) and 2/ Unsupervised play (ie. where children are playing in the local neighbourhood, maybe playspace or local environment or street). Key statistics that presented were that close to 50% of parents surveyed were worried about their child’s safety when they were not with an adult because of stranger danger and 18% of parents always felt worried about their child’s safety when their child wasn’t with a known adult. It was also demonstrated that gender played a large role in determining children’s independent mobility, with more boys travelling and playing independently than girls, and children living in rural / regional areas fared higher in terms of independent mobility as well.

Conversely (which I personal should now form the key directions for future work in this area) parents were shown to be more likely to let their children play and travel independently when the following occurred:

– they lived in communities where people knew each other

– there were fewer traffic and pedestrian hazards

– there were more adults and children out walking

So in conclusion this research determines that cultural changes are needed in our neighbourhood communities to encourage parents and their children back out and on the streets of their local neighbourhood and that this in turn will improve children’s physical health and well-being.

Lead researcher, Professor Jan Nicholson from La Trobe University, said several factors influence parents’ decisions to let their children play and travel independently.

“Factors range from ‘stranger danger’ to traffic and pedestrian hazards. We also learnt that community plays an important role and children were more likely to be independently active when their parents viewed their neighbourhood as a supportive community, where people know and look out for one another. However, disapproval from other parents, family members, and schools also restricts the level of freedom parents give to their children.  

“The research also shows that children’s independence is related to their gender and where they live. Parents of girls were more worried about their child’s safety and more fearful of harm to their child from strangers, than parents of boys. On average, boys are allowed more freedom for independent play and travel than girls and the research shows that 39% of boys travel to school independently compared to 33% of girls.

“Children who live in rural and regional Victoria are also more independent than those who live in metropolitan areas, with 40% of children in rural and regional areas travelling to school independently compared to 34% of children who live in cities,” Professor Nicholson said.

To read the full report and the summary of key findings from this report please click on the link below:

www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/parentalfear

Or download the summary here:

Preliminary Research Findings Summary

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