Public housing kids get out more

RICE (US) — Young children living in urban public housing spend more time playing outdoors and have fewer problems with obesity than other urban children.

Researchers hypothesized that children living in poorer circumstances would play outside less, but the study found that 5-year-olds living in public housing played outside 13 percent more per day, on average, than did other urban 5-year-olds.

Even children living in places of high physical disorder—areas with visible graffiti, trash, and abandoned homes—played outside more per day.

When children play more, they watch television less. For each additional hour the children played outside over the amount of time spent watching television, children scored 1.5 percentile points lower on the body mass index scale.

The higher a person’s BMI, the higher their risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems.

“A key to solving obesity problems among poor, urban children is to create safe and open spaces where these kids can play, because now we know that they are outside playing,” says Rachel Kimbro, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University and lead author of the new study.

“It’s possible that children living in public housing have access to community playgrounds and courtyards for children to play outdoors, which could be why we see more outside play time for them.”

Details of the study are published online in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

The data, collected through the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, include more than 1,800 5-year-olds in 2003-2004 in urban areas of the U.S. Overall, 19 percent of the sample was overweight (between the 85th and 95th percentiles) and 16 percent was obese (above the 95th percentile).

A mother’s perception of her neighborhood’s physical and social environment is a key predictor of how much her children play outdoors.

Mothers were asked questions that gauged how likely they thought neighbors would intervene in certain situations (such as if a child were skipping school and hanging out on the street) and whether they thought their neighborhoods were cohesive (such as people’s willingness to help their neighbors).

Children of mothers who perceived higher levels of collective efficacy in their neighborhoods played outside for longer periods each day, watched less television, and visited the park or playground more often each week.

Both subjective and objective neighborhood measures—including socioeconomic status, type of dwelling, perceived collective efficacy and interviewer-assessed physical disorder of the immediate environment outside the home—were considered in association with children’s activities.

“Maternal perceptions of neighborhood environments, both positive and negative, truly override objective measures, such as neighborhood poverty status, when considering children’s activities,” Kimbro says.

“Given the importance of maternal perception, it becomes critical to create community-based programs that seek to facilitate trust and neighborhood social networks in these low-income, urban areas.”

Researchers from Princeton University and Columbia University contributed to the study that was funded by Active Living Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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