New research reports children who have freedom to move from A to B by themselves – rather than depending on adults to take them places – experience improved wellbeing. Dr Lisa Gibbs from the University of Melbourne’s McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing discusses her research findings.   
 
What was the aim of the study? 
“The Stepping Out: Children Negotiating Independent Travel study was led by the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program at the University of Melbourne. It aimed to increase our understanding of how children negotiate active and independent travel, and to find ways to support their mobility as an important contributor to health and wellbeing. During 2011 and 2012, we walked and talked with 48 children aged 10-12, accompanying many on their daily travel journeys, in addition to speaking with class groups, parents and teachers.” 
 
What were the key findings?
“We found that children were initially nervous about travelling unaccompanied by a parent, but quickly came to enjoy the feeling of freedom and actively seek greater opportunities for mobility. Effectively, children’s mobile skills and confidence didn’t just happen, but were developed gradually over time. The study confirmed that the late stage of primary school is a critical period for developing children’s confidence and travelling independence without their parents, helping to prepare them for the common need in secondary school to travel further from home using varied modes of transport.” 
 
In what ways can children’s independent mobility promote their mental health and wellbeing?
“Children’s lack of independent mobility is a concern for their levels of physical activity, but also for the broader personal, spatial and social skills that moving freely about neighbourhoods and cities can help foster in children. The benefits of children’s everyday mobility range from learning to navigate local streets, to interacting with people in public, to gaining a sense of citizenship. There are a number of studies showing that the freedom of children to travel around their neighbourhood without adult supervision has dramatically declined over the last 30 years. This is associated with changes to the physical environment (such as urbanisation and increased car dependence) as well as the social environment (including changes to family working patterns and parental concerns about traffic or strangers).” 
 
What is the recommended age for promoting independent mobility? 
“There are not clear age-specific guidelines. Parents must always make judgements about their child’s capacity for increased independence in travel, as well as navigate options available in their local environment. The natural trigger for independent travel for children in our society is the transition to secondary school – schools are often further away from home and also promote the social norm that students should make their own way there and back. Many parents will help prepare for that transition by accompanying their child on practice journeys in the final holidays before secondary school starts, or in the first few weeks of school. However, beginning earlier helps to support a gradual development of skills and confidence.” 
 
What are some ways children can practise independent mobility?
“The study findings highlighted that ‘scaffolding’ children with a range of resources provided effective interdependent mobility, rather than the common misconception that the only options are dependence or independence. The key strategies found to foster incremental skills progression over time were:
 
  • parents and children practising travelling the route together
  • parents allowing children to walk or ride ahead, or travel part of the way alone
  • parents setting traffic and safety rules about the route and journey
  • children making journeys in groups of friends or relatives to provide companionship
  • children travelling along busier routes and at popular times to provide visibility in public spaces
  • children carrying a mobile phone to remain contactable and provide a reciprocal sense of security.
By having opportunities to experience and practise mobility wherever possible, children are able to develop their skills and confidence in becoming an active participant in their local community before venturing out into the wider world.”
 
How can professionals best help families to raise independently mobile children?   
“There remain further opportunities for families and communities to build the interdependent scaffolding that supports children’s mobility. For instance, professionals could help with overcoming parental concerns about traffic danger and stranger danger by contributing to public debate around this issue. We need to challenge the perception that a choice needs to be made by parents between dependent or independent travel for their children, when in fact the Stepping Out study showed varying degrees of interdependent travel being practised by families. There are, then, a myriad of opportunities for children to develop skills and confidence gradually and safely.”
 
For more information about the Stepping Out study, go to the McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing.