Hopscotch – one of the games I played with kids in the neighborhood, my sister, or even on my own on the sidewalk in front of my house. I went through phases with it when I loved it and would spend a lot of my time on that sidewalk and then the interest would wane. Sometimes the phase lasted as long as the days before it rained and the chalked game washed away.
What a great physical activity this was. It got me outside. I had the chance to practice balance (hopping on one foot wasn’t my forte in the beginning) and learned to throw a rock with the precise arm power behind it for the distance it needed to travel. It didn’t require my parents to drive me anywhere at a particular time. I didn’t need others to be able to play or practice, but when others were available it was a great social game. And, it was cheap!
Outdoor play and games like hopscotch could be endangered species.
Fear that Neighborhoods are Unsafe
Documentaries have been produced describing the changes in children’s play and how children are as free to play outside in the way I did in my neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s (for examples, see, Where do the Children Play?; Lost Adventures of Childhood). One key theme tends to be related to parents’ anxiety about and fear for their children’s safety. This anxiety/fear influences their decisions to allow their children to play freely outside in their backyard, on the sidewalks in front of their house, or in neighborhood parks or playgrounds.
In addition to documentaries that have explored this issue, there is also considerable research on parents’ concern for children’s safety. Most of the research captures the perspectives of mothers. Perhaps this is not surprising given research also shows mothers tend to be the key agent responsible for organizing family life including creating opportunities for their children to participate in physical activity and other leisure pursuits. Canadian researchers found that mothers’ perceptions of the quality of neighborhood parks influenced their decisions to allow or restrict their children’s use (Tucker, Gilliland, & Irwin, 2007; Tucker et al., 2009). Some mothers were willing to and did drive outside their neighborhood to go to a park they perceived as being safer or having better quality equipment than the one nearest home. Concerns about the safety of the environment around the family home (e.g., traffic, stranger danger) caused mothers to limit children’s independent play outdoors or how far from home they could go when, for example, riding their bikes (Bevan & Reilly, 2011; Jago et al., 2009). In a study focused on girls, mothers identified lack of sidewalks in the neighborhood as a barrier to their daughters’ physical activity (Gordon-Larsen et al., 2004).
One of the challenges is that parents’ fear and anxiety can produce a vicious cycle of fear. When there is a perception that a neighborhood is unsafe, it is less likely that children will be out and about. There is less social interaction among members of the neighborhood among both children and adults. With less interaction, fears of stranger danger can increase. Parents may then be more likely to transport their children around the neighborhood (e.g., to school, to the park or playground, to a friend’s house). This creates more traffic in the neighborhood which increases road safety fears (Mullen, 2003).
Unfortunately, some children live in neighborhoods where there is physical disorder (e.g., graffiti, beer bottles on the street) and social disorder (e.g., people drinking in public, people selling drugs) can influence both parents’ and children’ perception of a neighborhood’s safety.
Outcomes of Children’s Decreased Neighborhood Outdoor Play
There are some unfortunate outcomes of children not being free to play outdoors or move around their neighborhood. First, many researchers argue and have produced evidence that outdoor play is a strong determinant of physical activity. If simple outdoor activities become extinct, the levels of children’s physical activity could continue to decrease because outdoor play is a strong determinant of physical activity. Second, without activities like road hockey, bicycling, kick the can, capture the flag, and even hopscotch, there could be lost opportunities, as Paul Barter suggests, for developing self-confidence and problem solving skills. Third, with adult rules and strict boundaries, opportunities for exploration, creativity, and innovation may be lost.
Preserving Outdoor Play
Can anything be done to preserve the hopscotch experience or increase the independent mobility of children during their leisure time within their neighborhoods? One study suggests that mothers who interacted with neighbors and felt part of the community were more likely to support the independent mobility of their children. So perhaps knowing one’s neighbors and having one’s neighbors know your children could help parents feel more comfortable with providing their children with more freedom.
Many communities and neighborhoods have installed “traffic calming” measures (e.g., speed humps; speed radars; narrowing streets) to reduce speed and/or volume of traffic where appropriate. I live on a long, straight street with lots of children in my neighborhood. After several reports and complaints to police about driver speed by members of the neighborhood, speed humps were installed at three points on my long street. This has forced drivers to slow down and, from a practical perspective, encourages a relatively slow speed driving the entire street because of the strategically placed humps. Advocating for traffic calming devices may be an action parents (and even neighbors without children) can take to reduce the risk to children playing in the neighborhood.
Some cities are also putting bike lanes on busier streets to provide a space for bikers on the road and to provide a very physical indicator to drivers that they need to share the road with cyclists. Bike lanes can, at the very least, reduce the perception of road hazards and some communities that have made bike lanes part of the road infrastructure notice less vehicle/bicycle conflict (Chen et al., 2012). Changing the infrastructure proves more effective than educating drivers and children about how to behave safely and harmoniously on the road together. Something else to advocate for.
The more complicated issues to deal with related to perceived neighborhood safety and children’s outdoor play are those falling under physical and social disorder. Police action in such neighborhoods would be important as would working to make the neighborhood as aesthetically pleasing as possible (e.g., removing graffiti when it appears). However, this takes considerable commitment from members of the neighborhood and the municipal government. A first step may be recognizing that physical and social disorder does affect children’s outdoor play and working to advocate for children’s opportunity to be and feel safe engaging in outdoor play.
Bevan, A. L., & Reilly, S. M. (2011). Mothers’ efforts to promote healthy nutrition and physical activity for their preschool children. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 26, 395–403.
Chen, L., Chen, C., Ewing, R., McKnight, C. E., Srinivasan, R., & Roe, M. (2012). Safetycountermeasures and crash reduction in New York City—Experience and lessons learned. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 50, 312-322.
Gordon-Larsen, P., Griffiths, P., Bentley, M. E., Ward, D. S., Kelsey, K., Shields, K., et al. (2004). Barriers to physical activity: qualitative data on caregiver-daughter perceptions and practices. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 27, 218–223.
Jago, R., Thompson, J. L., Page, A. S., Brockman, R., Cartwright, K., & Fox, K. R. (2009). Licence to be active: Parental concerns and 10–11-year-old children’s ability to be independently physically active. Journal of Public Health, 31, 472-477.
Molnar, B. E., Gortmaker, S. L., Bull, F. C, & Buka, S. L. (2004). Unsafe to play? Neighborhood disorder and lack of safety predict reduced physical activity among urban children and adolescents. American Journal of Health Promotion, 18(5), 378-386.
Tucker, P., Gilliland, J., & Irwin, J. D. (2007). Splashpads, swings, and shade: Parents’ preferences for neighbourhood parks. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 98(3), 198-202.
Tucker, T., Irwin, J. D., Gilliland, J., He, M., Larsen, K., Hess, P. (2009). Environmental influences on physical activity levels in youth. Health & Place, 15, 357–363