Documentary examines children’s independent mobility

In the new short documentary Running Free: Children’s Independent Mobility, the opening on-screen quotation sets the message: “The greatest gift you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.”

Produced through an endowment from the University of British Columbia Faculty of Education, Running Free examines the challenges parents face in allowing their children to move and play freely in the world. It looks at parental fear over the safety of their children, and it discusses the critical importance of independent mobility in developing children’s confidence, decision-making, and physical health. 

Dr. Guy Faulkner, a professor and researcher in public health at UBC, comments on the role played by children’s decreased independent mobility in the current physical inactivity crisis.

“They are weaker and they are fatter than they were a generation ago,” says Faulkner. “One of the reasons behind the decline in physical activity is, I think, a decline in independent mobility, and allowing opportunities for kids to travel to and from … places where they can play, where they can engage with nature.”

Running Free: Children’s Independent Mobility

Director: Donna Gall
Year: 2019
Production company: Northway Girl
Format: Online release
Run time: 26 minutes
Rating: G

Highlighting the scale of the decline in children’s mobility, researcher Negin Riazi points to a study conducted in England that showed a staggering drop in the number of children ages seven to eight who walked to school independently, from 80 percent in 1971 to just nine percent in 1990. According to Riazi, this scale of change has been seen worldwide.

Both Faulkner and Riazi point to the rising culture of fear among parents over the safety of their children. Parents feel increased fear of strangers and kidnapping, fear of traffic injuries while walking or riding to school, and fear of negative judgment from other parents—and even public authorities—if they allow their children to roam freely. 

In the film, UBC’s Dr. Mariana Brussoni warns of the cost to our children’s mental health and well-being.

“We have seen an increase in anxiety and depression rates,” says Brussoni. “There’s strong evidence to suggest that there could be a correlation there.”


Related read: “As safe as necessary”: a new way of looking at risk


She explains that when children’s opportunities for independent movement and play are reduced, it appears that their feelings of self-efficacy, self-confidence, and being able to manage the world are also diminished. 

Through interviews with families and educators, Running Free points to some of the solutions and strategies that can be used to allow children the mobility they need. Basic classes in cycling and road safety, guidance on using public transit, walking school buses (when children walk to school in large groups), lower speed limits, bike lanes, and policies that make it easier for families to live and work closer to where kids go to school are all presented.

Ultimately, we need to consider changes to our built environment and our social and parenting culture to create communities that are conducive to kids being kids.

“There is the opportunity to provide them with those chances to get out, to play, to take risks,” says Brussoni. “Because the likelihood of something serious happening is incredibly low, and yet the benefits that the kids get from those experiences is incredible.”

As one of the parents in Running Free highlights: “They need that, because I’m not going to be there forever and they need to navigate the world on their own.”

Photos courtesy of UBC.

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