Course:KIN366/ConceptLibrary/Rural Environment

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Movement Experiences for Children
KIN 366
Instructor: Dr. Shannon S.D. Bredin
Office Hours:
Class Schedule:
Important Course Pages
Lecture Notes
Course Discussion

Natural and 'rural' environments have traditionally been seen as nature’s very own playgrounds where children could play and engage in physical activity. Very much has changed in the modern day society and children are much less likely to have accessible wild land to use as an exploratory medium for challenging and exercising skills needed to master varying landscapes and unforeseen situations (Fjørtoft, 2004). Children today are being neglected many opportunities for stimulating ‘free play’ as the environments to engage in such activities are consistently changing and declining at the very same instance (Fjørtoft, 2004). With this, growing worries are surfacing that children are not being given the proper opportunities for movement affordances to properly develop their motor skills. In addition, there is a growing concern that children are becoming more sedentary and inactive during their adolescent years—predicting an epidemic of preventable health concerns later in life (Fjørtoft, 2004). It is important to understand that children’s environments are not restricted solely to their home’s confines. The surrounding neighborhood of a child has the ability to act as a stage—either affording or restricting a child’s activities and development (Kyttä, 1997) and very little contemporary research has focused on living in the countryside rather than urban city centers. A debate then occurs revolving around rural versus urban settings. Is there a sense of importance in providing children with the more ‘rural’ environments for affording them possibilities and challenges within their movement development?

Definition and Background of a 'Rural Environment'

According to Stats Canada, a “rural environment” is one in which a population is not concentrated but dispersed at a low density (Puderer, 2009). Rural typically refers to low population density, small population size, and vast distance from high population density and big size conglomerates—therefore ‘spatial dimension’ becomes a main area of topic.

Natural Environments

Natural environments lie within rural environments. They are defined as environments not designed or cultivated by humans. These could be forests, fields, etc.

Rural Diversity

Being the second largest country in the world by total area, Canada is a perfect example of a land of great diversity, economics, and culture. Rural Canada continues to be one of the most highly diverse areas of study, and whether investigating socio-economic, cultural, and or environmental characteristics, rural areas of this nation can be found at two extremes of distribution—which are among the most affluent and the most disadvantaged nationwide (Alasia, 1996).


Urbanization refers to increasing numbers of people living in urban areas as alternatively to rural areas. With the United Nations estimating that half of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by the end of 2008, this is clearly a worldwide phenomenon (UN News Centre, 2009). The concept of urbanization is connected with modernization and industrialization, and can be seen as a rapid and historic transformation where rural environments are being replaced with the likelihood of urban hubs. Urbanization rates differ country to country, yet the causes for such movement remain the same: in creating opportunities for services and wealth. Relating this issue to children and health, this rural to urban migration pattern can have serious implications and long term disadvantages to children in their movement experience and development if urban settings do not provide proper affordances that would naturally consist in that of rural environments.

Landscape Influences on Movement

Outdoor playgrounds

Outdoor playgrounds are part of suburban or metropolitan areas. Hart’s work explains (as cited in Fjørtoft, 2004) that they are generally designed to facilitate children’s play and are intended to enhance children’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. The typical playground is a flat design consisting of metal or synthetic based equipment: climbing bars, swings, slides, see-saws. Author Front (as cited in Fjørtoft, 2004) explains that these designs are rarely challenging to the children playing on them, and lack the opportunities for the exploration of their motor skill potentials. When this occurs, children are less likely to develop their motor skills in line with the timeframe of motor milestones, and in the most extreme cases, children may miss out on developing certain motor skills all together.

Natural Playing Environment

Different playing opportunities are created in natural and more rural environments. Having un-groomed land with rough playing surfaces and variation in topography and vegetation provides opportunities for challenges in movement and varying designs of playing and moving in a more creative manner (Fjørtoft, 2004). Research from Titman (as cited in Fjørtoft, 2004) has shown children’s preferences for outdoor play environments over traditional playground settings, with specific environmental qualities being recognized and appreciated such as colours in nature, trees, shaded areas, places for climbing and construction, challenging places for exploring and experience, etc. Rivkin (as cited in Fjørtoft, 2004) also recognized specific qualities of preferential enjoyment of outdoor play (as compared to traditional play) connected to the senses, such as the fragrant smells of the natural elements, textures, sounds, and unusualness and incongruity—this adds to the enjoyment, and increased likelihood for physical fitness and motor development to occur.


In the past decade, specific studies focused on the impact of environment type on motor development and physical activity in children. A particular study that was published in 2004 by Fjørtoft produced findings that indicated landscapes as being influential to physical activity, play, and motor development in children. Methods from landscape ecology were used for landscape analysis and localization of play habitats were determined using Global Positioning Systems (GPS). This quasi-experimental study was conducted on five-, six-, and seven-year olds with both an experimental and control group—the experimental group playing in a natural environment whereas the control group played in a more traditional playground setting. Results show statistically significant increases in motor fitness when children were provided with a natural landscape to play on. In addition, there were significant differences found between the two groups in balance and coordination skills favouring the experimental group. The findings of this study signify the ability of landscape to influence physical activity and motor development in children (Fjørtoft, 2004). Diversity of environmental resources and access to play and exploration has been identified as the two central criteria of ‘child-friendly environments’ that which can heavily influence a child’s perception to play and physical activity—therefore motor development (stated by researcher Moore [as cited in Kyttä, 2004]).

Movement Affordances and the Importance of Independent Mobility

Movement Affordances

Affordances are generally defined as the physical opportunities and dangers an individual perceives while acting in a specific environment according to authors Gibson and Heft (as cited in Kyttä, 2004). Objects provide positive affordances for major motor skills for children such as grasping, twisting, throwing, running, climbing, etc. (Kyttä, 2004). Given these opportunities, specific environments must provide elements that individuals (and specifically children) can perceive as offering potential for activities to engage in such motor capabilities- in layman’s terms, these actualized affordances motivate children to be mobile (Kyttä, 2004). Various European studies such as those completed in Finland and Belarus have concluded that children in rural environments have the greatest movement affordances as compared to those children in larger suburban or urban settings (Kyttä, 2004). These findings would most likely correlate with those of other Western civilizations such as Canada, USA, and or Australia.

Independent Mobility

a. According to theories of Neisser and Piaget (as cited in Kyttä, 1997), independent mobility is essential for the development of cognitive representations of environment. The role of exploratory activities that natural/rural environments provide are specifically important to children under the age of nine prior to them reaching a coordinated system of reference. There is a triangular relationship between the environment, movements and actions, and overall representations of the world—each coinciding with one another (Kyttä, 1997). There has been a decline seen with independent mobility, and one large reason for this is the modernization of society, providing less freedom and space for children to roam freely (Kyttä, 1997). To clarify van Vilet (as cited in Kyttä, 2004), ‘mobility’ can be analyzed through measuring territorial ranges of children being allowed to wander when they play or socialize. Independent mobility branched off from this concept as somewhat of a ‘license’ to move around independently in their environment; without children’s’ parents setting rules or areas of permission that would control their activity levels (Kyttä, 2004). The more mobility licenses a child may have, the more likely they actualize movement affordances in their environment (Kyttä, 2004). Possibilities for children to experience independent mobility has decreased overall in many developed countries as restrictions being applied by societal pressures, however the same decreases in rates in developing countries are as a result of different factors such as child labour (Kyttä, 2004). Data has shown that no matter the decrease in this element overall, children’s’ opportunities for outdoor activity levels and independent mobility levels were indeed higher in rural locations than in city environments with large size and density. Research has also shown that Western European-, Australian-, and American cultures in general are some of the worst for providing opportunities for independent mobility (Kyttä, 1997).

Active Transport

Research has been conducted about the locations of where children and adolescents are physically active to help better understand factors affecting physical activity. According to Grow et al. (2008), the most studied locations for children physical activity are: schools (including active transport to and from), neighbourhood streets, and parks. It has been found that children use a variety of settings to engage in play and physical activity, however the overall likelihood of actually engaging in such activities is based on: greater proximity to the site in which physical activity occurs, perceived traffic/road safety, and neighbourhood transport infrastructure—such as sidewalks and controlled intersections (Grow et al. 2008). Existing evidence has shown urban design factors can indeed influence physical activity behaviours, and fostering suitable urban environments is critical to sustaining positive physical activity behaviours (Badland & Schofield, 2005). According to the Land Transport Safety Authority (as cited in Badland & Schofield, 2005). Urban design has caused a phenomenon of over reliance on automobiles for daily travel. Siegel et al., (As cited in Badland & Schofield, 2005) stated that walking is the most common and preferred form of physical activity for the general population; it’s popularity stemming from its accessibility, negligible equipment specialization, and acceptability ad a form of exercise for various sub-populations. The three most common barriers cited by Rafferty et al. (as cited by Badland & Schofield, 2005) were associated with walking as a form of transportation were: time inconveniences, poor weather, and substandard health; trip distances being the most defining barrier when these modes of transportation were limited. The sole explanation of a lack of accessible recreation sites has proven lower levels of physical activity and higher rates of obesity, and may place a hindrance on children’s movement experiences in addition to the other factors discussed. In rural environments, these factors are most likely to be amplified; therefore their strategic importance must be considered in all urban planning processes.

Practical Applications


Further research needs to focus around the importance of natural environments as places to play and learn. Children’s perspectives must be incorporated into these studies and applications (specifically in developed nations) as sequential policies and practices have produced a “discourse of taking the risk out of childhood and restricting children’s boundaries: all in the name of keeping them safe and reducing risks” (MacDougall, Schiller, & Darbyshire, 2009). Studying the impacts of urban design is essential– specifically focusing on active transport in rural communities. It is recommended that parental environmental and safety concerns are targeted to encourage the sustainability of child non-motorized transport in rural environments, and prospective research needs to investigate if travel modes utilized as a child track into adulthood (Badland & Schofield, 2005).


The possibilities for all children to live in rural settings are slim. Given this reality, city and social planners must consider the importance of the way environments and new developments are designed and their impact on children engagement and interaction with the natural environment (MacDougall et al., 2009). Parents need to be conscious (especially in non rural communities) to provide their children opportunities to experience different settings. Perhaps on weekends parents and their children can go on hikes, walks, or bikes rides in forested areas, or mountainous terrain. Alternatives for families that are unable to make a trip to more ‘rural’ areas for day trips could try and provide their children with activities that would provide them the opportunities to develop certain motor skills such as gymnastics, swimming, or a team sport. It is important to consider that these options would only be attainable and realistic for those families who have the financial means and time to allocate to such activities. However, for those families who do not have such resources, movement affordances can be fabricated with many household items (if properly supervised), and independent mobility can be instilled in various aspects of a child’s life to a greater extent than seen in most of the Western and developed society. Opposed to children driving to school, children should walk or bike to school when possible. Note: this is not possible for all communities, as some rural environments require children to use the school bus or other forms of automotive transport based on the distance.


Alasia, A. (1996). Mapping the socio-economic diversity of rural Canada: A multivariate analysis. Retrieved February 23, 2014 from Statistics Canada:

Badland, H., & Schofield, G. (2005). Transport, urban design, and physical activity: an evidence-based update. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 10(3), 177-196.

Fjørtoft, I. (2004). Landscape as playscape: The effects of natural environments on lay and motor development. Children, youth and environments, 14(2), 21-44.

Grow, H., Saelens, B., Kerr, J., Durant, N., Norman, G., & Sallis, J. (2008). Where are youth active? Roles of proximity, active transport, and built environment. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 40(12), 2071.

Kyttä, M. (1997). Children’s independent mobility in urban, small town, and rural environments. Growing up in a changing landscape. Assen: Van Gorcum. 41-52.

Kyttä, M. (2004). The extent of children’s independent mobility and the number of actualized affordances as criteria for child-friendly environments. Journal of environmental psychology, 24(2), 179-198.

MacDougall, C., Schiller, W., & Darbyshire, P. (2009). What are our boundaries and where can we play? Perspectives from eight- to ten-year-old Australian metropolitan and rural children. Early child development and care, 179(2), 189-204.

Puderer, H. (2009). Urban perspectives and measurement. Retrieved February 23, 2014 from Statistics Canada, Special Projects, Geography Division:

UN News Centre. (2009, February 26). Half of global population will live in cities by end of this year, predicts UN. Retrieved by