Children's environmental health

Emerging issues

Children, mobility and environmental health

Many children, as well as adults, are regularly consuming more calories than they can reasonably expend given current activity patterns (Saris, Blair et al. 2003). In one recent Scottish study, for example, median time spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity represented only 2 % of monitored hours among children age three years, and 4 % among children age five years. The total level of low energy expenditure in the children in the study was 200 kcals below estimated average energy requirements for children of this age. (Reilly, Jackson et al. 2004).

Not only does a sedentary lifestyle have implications for physical fitness, per se, it also has profound implications for physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development. The undirected exploration of space in movement and play is an important part of childhood development (Churchman 1980). Children who are unable to safely explore their neighbourhood are denied a vital experience – the chance to test themselves socially, mentally and physically in small real-life situations that prepare them for the wider world (Hillman 1999).

One key factor in the increasingly sedentary lifestyle of children may be the decline in opportunities for children to move about safely and independently on foot or by bicycle in the communities where they live. In the UK, annual mileage travelled on foot and cycle among children of school age declined by over 25% and 40 % respectively over the two decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Rising motorization, perceived risk of accident or injury from traffic, and the disappearance, or perceived disappearance, of safe urban spaces where children may walk, cycle and play, all appear to be important factors constricting childhood mobility today (Hillman 1999).

In addition to traffic and air pollution, poor children in the mega-cities of the developing world may play in spaces that contain sewage, hazardous waste, and other serious environmental hazards. For all but very young children, however, the simple construction of static playgrounds, is not the solution. Children over the pre-school age typically need and seek out activities that involve movement – riding bicycles, roller skating, and moving in and out of the homes of friends. (Churchman 1980; Dobson 2004).

The promotion of simple, routine childhood activities, such as walking and cycling around the neighbourhood, and to and from school, via designated clean and safe routes, is one simple way in which policymakers can promote opportunities for children to move independently and increase their physical activity levels.

Over the long term, urban designers, transport planners, environment and health professionals need to collaborate more closely in the design of “active community environments” that support childhood physical activity and mobility (Killingsworth and Lamming 2001). The development of planned, mixed use and medium density neighbourhoods, with good sidewalks and cycling networks, can be a critical element permitting children to move about more safely and easily on their own (Kenworthy 2002); (Churchman 1993). A key environmental health challenge of the future, then, in terms of childhood mobility, is not to get children off of the streets -- but to make streets safe for children.

Churchman, A. (1980). Children in Urban Environments, the Israeli Experience. Managing Urban Space in the Interest of Children. W. Michelson and E. Michelson, Canada/MAP Committee.
Churchman, A. (1993). Differentiated Perspective on Urban Quality of Life, Women, Children and the Elderly. UNESCO Programme on Man and Biosphere, Proceedings of International Symposium, Rome, UNESCO.
Dobson, F. (2004). Getting Serious About Play - A Review of Children's Play. London, U.K. Department for Culture, Media and Sport: 60.
Hillman, M. (1999). The Impact of Transport Policy on Children's Development. Canterbury Safe Routes to Schools Project Seminar, Canterbury Christ Church University College.
Kenworthy, J. (2002). The Death of the Walking City: Killing the Rights of Pedestrians. Pedestrian Rights: 100 years of oppression", Perth, Australia, Government for Western Australia, Department for Planning and Infrastructure & Western Australian Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
Killingsworth, R. and J. Lamming (2001). "Point of View: Development and Public Health: Could our development patterns be affecting our personal health?" Urban Land.
Reilly, J. J., D. M. Jackson, et al. (2004). "Total energy expenditure and physical activity in young Scottish children: mixed longitudinal study." The Lancet 363(9403): 211-212.
Saris, W. H. M., S. N. Blair, et al. (2003). "How much physical activity is enough to prevent unhealthy weight gain? Outcome of the IASO 1st Stock Conference and consensus statement." Obesity Reviews 4(2): 101-114.