A longitudinal study of children's outside play using family environment and perceived physical environment as predictors

Abstract (provisional)


A natural and cheap way of increasing children's physical activity is stimulating unstructured outside play.

Purpose: This study examined whether characteristics of the family and perceived physical environment were associated with the duration of children's outside play.


Parents participating in the "Be Active, Eat Right" cluster RCT control group (N = 2007) provided information on potential predictors of outside play (i.e. family and perceived physical environment) of their 5-year-old child by questionnaire. Child outside play was assessed by parental reports both at five and seven years. Linear regression analyses, adjusted for seasonality, were performed to evaluate associations between potential predictors and child outside play. Linear mixed models were fitted to evaluate the relationship between potential predictors and the development of outside play over two years, with season entered as a random factor.


Family environment was the strongest construct predicting child outside play, while parent perceived physical environment had no significant association with child outside play. Parental habit strength and the presence of rules were the strongest predictors of increased outside play. Parent perceived difficulty in improving child outside play was the strongest predictor of decreased outside play.


Family environment predicted child outside play and not perceived physical environment. Parental rules and habit strength regarding improving outside play were associated with an improvement of child's engagement in outside play.

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Alex’s Notes: Children who play outside (OP) are more active than those who don’t, and OP is also associated with increased social skills as the children learn to appreciate and interact with other kids. Some of my best times in early elementary school was time spent playing “army” on the playground, complete with hands for guns, pinecone grenades, “pew-pew” sounds, and of course, arguments about whether or not you got shot and needed to play dead. Not surprisingly, OP has also been demonstrated to provide children with opportunities to acquire new motor skills such as climbing, jumping, hanging, and sliding. But not all children play outside and an increasing number simply plop down in front of a video game after school. Thus, it is interesting to see what factors are associated with time spent in OP in 5-year olds, and how those factors influenced OP time two years later, at 7-years old.

This study looked at 2007 parents and children, and the amount of time they spent in OP. Note that this doesn’t include organized sports, school PE classes, or active transport. So basically OP is the time children spent dinking around outside. The parents were administered questionnaires about their child’s OP at age 5 with questions organized under various categories, and results were classified to a season which was then used as a confounding variable. Questionnaires were readministered to the parents two years later at child age 7.

The results are somewhat of a relief in the beginning, with about 76% of children engaged in more than an hour of OP per day, and only 11% of mothers indicating that getting their child to go outside was difficult. The presence of parental rules regarding OP and a family habitat that encouraged outside play were both significantly associated with the time the child spent outdoors. The former increased OP time by an average of 24 minutes, while the latter by 34 minutes. Moreover, giving the child autonomy to do what they want or having siblings that also played outdoors increased time spent in OP. Interestingly, actively intending to improve child’s OP was associated with less OP time, probably because it took away from their autonomy.

The results at child age 7 were very similar, with habitat strength and rules regarding OP being the largest positive variables. Surprisingly, the parent’s education was negatively associated with OP, with “high” education parents reporting an average of 26 minutes less than “low” education parents, and a positive parental attitude regarding was also related to less OP. Actually, I would be this is reverse causation, as parents may consider their child’s OP as sufficient and therefore not think their child should improve on it.

Overall, the family environment was the strongest predictor of child OP, with the presence of rules, an encouraging environment, and model siblings all greatly increasing a child’s OP time. In contrast, parental perceived difficulty in improving OP negatively impacted OP. This shows that parents are able to indicate difficulties, and that the presence of these difficulties is associated with relatively low levels of OP. Future studies should investigate these difficulties more thoroughly to identify what the exact difficulties are that parents are struggling with. But the takeaway remains the same. Be the example and foster an encouraging environment for outside play.

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