While there are various factors to consider when gauging the health of a child, perhaps one of the most overlooked is the physical community wherein that child lives. A community determines what kind of food that child eats, the school she attends and even the level of physical activity that she can enjoy.For very young children, the options – or lack thereof – that a community offers for physical activity and healthful food are vitally important, since healthy habits are established very early on in life. Research shows that children often exhibit the physical activity levels of the people around them, so a child will usually be about as active as her parents or caregivers. In communities designed for more walkability, and that have more play areas like parks and green spaces, children’s activity levels have increased significantly despite their families’ habits. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, children who live in these “smart growth” neighborhoods get 46 percent more moderate or vigorous physical activity than children who live in traditional neighborhoods. And it appears that the younger the children are in these communities, the more physical activity they enjoy.A researcher in North Carolina has also found that parks with the most activity offered diverse choices for play, with areas designed for preschool children as well as for adults. These options attracted repeat visitors to the park during the week, and not just on weekends.While not every family can enjoy the benefits of a “smart growth” neighborhood, parents and caregivers can encourage community leaders to consider the physical environment for children when planning redevelopment projects. Some successful options have included redesigning empty lots as green spaces for neighborhood occupants, and rebuilding abandoned strip malls into playgrounds. Additionally, communities can be instrumental in attracting healthy food options and limiting fast food advertising in their neighborhoods.At a family level, parents and caregivers can help establish active lifestyles for their young children by taking their babies and toddlers out of swings, playpens and other restrictive devices and encouraging them to explore their surroundings. For older children, parents and caregivers can encourage outdoor play time, take family walks and limit television and screen time. We now know that the more time children spend playing in and enjoying the communities around them, the healthier they will grow.
- Outdoor play is an important part of healthy human development, as outlined in this report from Zero to Three.
- Acting Boldly to Change Diet and Exercise for Kids (ABCDE), a list of relevant recommendations from the American Psychological Association.
- A community in northern California has found multiple ways to improve health and outdoor activity in their neighborhoods.
In The News:
- “Communities Learn the Good Life Can be a Killer”, The New York Times, January 30, 2012.