In The Neighborhood

How the built environment influences our mental health

Urban Versus Rural Life

Children's activity in urban and rural locations

I have a romantic notion of what life is like for children raised in rural areas.  The impression I’ve gained from the experiences and recollections of my rural-raised friends is that their childhood was spent outdoors, riding horses, swimming in rivers, and camping under the stars.  For me, these images conjure up feelings of freedom, exploration, and general health and vitality.  

New research published in the journal Health & Place provides evidence that both confirms and contradicts my assumptions.  Using an Australian sample of 613 children and their mothers, Professor Jo Salmon and colleagues investigated links between parents’ perceptions of their environment and their children’s physical activity and sedentary behavior.  Focusing on low socio-economic areas, the study also examined the findings according to rural or urban location.

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In contrast to my expectations, the study found no significant differences in the physical activity levels of rural and urban children, suggesting that neighborhood factors influencing physical activity are similar in both locations.  However, the study did show that children living in urban areas reported significantly higher levels of screen time (almost 30 more minutes a day than their rural counterparts), with screen time comprised of television, DVDs, the internet or computer games.  

These screen time results may reflect differences in local environments, with maternal reports suggesting that rural children have greater knowledge of their neighborhood and social network, as well as higher neighborhood personal safety and access to physical equipment at home.  

Although no significant associations were found between social networks and screen time, the authors raised the possibility that play dates involving rural children are more likely to be spent outdoors, while those involving urban children are more likely to involve screen-based activities.  The authors also suggested that road safety policies in rural areas, such as road crossings to parks and footpaths, may help to increase physical activity levels in children.

While the study design prevents the authors from drawing conclusions about what causes less screen time, actions parents can take that may limit children's sedentary behavior include limiting access to sedentary items at home, removing televisions from bedrooms, setting rules surrounding screen-time activities, exploring neighborhoods and finding places to play, and increasing exposure to other children who play sport and spend time outdoors.

It goes without saying that children do not need to be raised in the country to lead healthy, vital lives.  While my own family may not ride horses, swim in rivers, or camp as much as we’d like, we do have access to beautiful parks and enjoy many weekends at the beach.  Nonetheless, I suspect I will continue to dream about the life we might lead if we packed up our belongings and moved to a country town. 

 

References

Salmon J, Veitch J, Abbott G, ChinAPaw M, Brug JJ, teVelde SJ, Cleland V, Hume C, Crawford D, Ball K.  Are associations between the pereceived home and neighbourhood environment and children’s physical activity and sedentary behavior moderated by urban/rural location?  Health & Place.  2013; 24:44-53.

Jacinta Francis, Ph.D., is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Built Environment and Health at The University of Western Australia.

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