"Come down from there. Don't hang upside down. Don't swing so high!"
You don't want your child to be a couch potato. So you take him to the park. But once he's on the monkey bars or up a tree, there's a good chance you're the reason he's not getting much exercise, according to new research.
In a study of about 2,700 children playing in 20 randomly selected parks in Durham, N.C., researchers found that if a parent or other supervising adult was present, the child was much less likely to be moderately or vigorously active, says Myron Floyd, a professor in the North Carolina State University's department of parks, recreation and tourism management. "This is the running, the jumping, the climbing," he says.
Previous research has suggested that the availability and proximity of parks is associated with higher levels of activity for kids. But in this study, a paradox emerged: Parents were observed reining in their children when they strayed, limiting their movements and stepping in to promote caution.
The effects may be greatest on younger children, who are generally more active than older kids, but whose parents escort them to parks the most. (They also found that the presence of active peers increased the level of activity.)
"It is something to think about for parents of younger kids," Dr. Floyd says. "Free play is very important to young kids developmentally – socially, cognitively and of course physically."
Dr. Floyd and his colleagues, including landscape architects who design playgrounds, suggest that tweaking park architecture may be one way to mitigate the effects of parents who crimp their kids' style.
Benches could be closer to play structures to allay parents' worries about what's going on out of sight, he says. Structures could be built to encourage parent-child play. Another idea is to use landscaping and greenery to create natural borders "to confine kids but not with a big metal fence," he says.
Mark Tremblay, chief scientific officer of the non-profit Healthy Active Kids Canada, says the North Carolina findings echo what he's seen as both a researcher and a parent.
"I've experienced parents shrieking in horror as their kids starts to climb a local tree," says the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario researcher, who observed the "Don't swing so high!" comments above. "When the parent isn't there, the child experiments. They're seeking thrill and they're learning how far they can go, and as they get stronger and more co-ordinated, they can do things better."
He encourages parents to reflect on the activities and free play they enjoyed as children and to "allow your child to learn their physical capabilities and learn their limits." Give them a little more room to manoeuvre, even if that means the odd scraped knee or elbow, he says.
In addition to being a factor in childhood obesity, "bubble-wrapping" also dooms kids to less physical activity as they mature, Dr. Tremblay says.
"So, with a world that encourages us to be sedentary, you're coming in with fewer options available," he says. "You can't go rock climbing because you're simply not strong enough, so that's not an option. I fear for the future because of that."
Countering the so-called nature-deficit disorder many kids face is another goal, Dr. Tremblay says.
"How can kids safely interact with trees and leaves and dirt and streams and so on in a way that captures their imagination, connects them with nature, keeps them moving, teaches them basic safety?"
Parents who sit on benches refereeing their children's actions are also missing an opportunity not only to model healthy activity but to get a little exercise themselves.
"It's not all parents. Some come over with a soccer ball and start a game, but in my experience, that's a minority," he says, adding that an even better idea may be for mom and dad to kick a ball or throw a Frisbee to one another while the kids are off doing their own thing.
A win-win park excursion, in other words.