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Research says freedom is healthy for kids

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By Jon Solmundson

Giving kids more freedom to get around on their own could be key to improving fitness, according to Ryerson research.

The study, performed across 16 public elementary schools in the Toronto City area, showed kids who were allowed to move around their neighbourhood unsupervised were almost 20 per cent more physically active than those who weren’t.

Ryerson Professor of urban planning Raktim Mitra, lead author of the study, said in the last few decades people had become increasingly restrictive on their children’s whereabouts, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

“So far the discussions about whether or not you’d let your child go out on their own centered on potential risks, and we often overlook the fact that there might be some substantial benefits too,” Dr Mitra said.

“The contributions of research like ours, and others, is that we are bringing more information about the benefits of childrens’ freedom and mobility to the table so that parents can make more informed decisions.

Dr Mitra’s advice for parents was to let children have the freedom to be active, rather than keeping them inside.

“I tell parents to give your kids some space; this has a lot of mental, cognitive and physical health benefits,” he said.

“Let them do what they want to do outside.”

The issue of children’s health has become a pressing matter for researchers due to the huge rise in childhood obesity in recent years.

Dr. Mitra said although childhood obesity was a growing problem across the Western world, research like this could reverse the trend by promoting “habitual” physical activities, like walking to school.

Statistics Canada’s 2011 data shows up to 34 per cent of Canadian children were overweight or obese, up 5 per cent since 2007.

This makes Canada the 8th worst country in the world for childhood obesity.

The study also highlighted the fact that girls are generally more closely watched over, and as a result get less physical activity than boys.

“What we saw in our research, and this is not very unique, is that girls typically enjoy less freedom than boys of the same age,” Dr Mitra said.

“If you look at how are our society works, unfortunately especially for children, that’s not surprising.

“But if we’re thinking about an education program [promoting free movement] at schools for example, those programs could be particularly be geared toward girls[…]  this could be a great opportunity.”

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