Today, although trails exist in cities, suburbs, and open country, it appears that only a small minority of children and families are actually using them. Pathways used by children and families are underrepresented in research and practice, perhaps because previous generations took children’s independent mobility for granted. However, a convincing case for deliberately re-activating the pathway idea can be made on the basis of healthy child development and related built environment requirements, as well as historic precedent. Here are several facts that point out the value playful paths for children and families.
Spontaneous play (children playing together without direct adult intervention) is recognized by child development experts as a crucial aspect of healthy childhood. Ideally, it should happen outdoors where sufficient space is available. In a commissioned report to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg, a leading pediatrician, wrote that “play…is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.”
Outdoor physical activity and pathways:
When children are outdoors, they are more likely to be engaged in higher levels of physical activity. They are generally more fit than those who spend the majority of their time inside, and exhibit a statistically significant improvement in motor fitness with better coordination, balance, and agility. Pathways attract children’s physical activity. Studies have found that winding, wooded pathways that are easily accessible from residential areas are highly used by not only children, but seniors and other age groups as well.
Movement is a fundamental characteristic of children’s play and provides a special, multifunctional impact on cognitive development through several facets. Proprioceptive describes movement of limbs connected to the rest of the body – a dancer’s sense of knowing where her or his arms and legs are and their intended contribution to the expressive gesture of the whole body. Vestibular describes the body’s interaction with gravity and the pleasurable stimulation of the inner ear experienced as we swing, slide, or roll down a hill. Kinesthetic describes movement through space, which is most relevant to pathway use; however it is generally recognized that all three senses continuously work together.
In middle childhood, children move away from home to explore and have adventures while discovering the physical and cultural characteristics of their community. Independent mobility social, and typically involves a peer group. Playful pathway connections between home and school offer safe routes to meaningful destinations and opportunities to play along the way, allowing the developmental drive of childhood to be exercised to its full potential.
Reducing traffic danger:
Fast moving, dense traffic has become a major deterrent to independent mobility and neighborhood play. When asked, children themselves rank a safe traffic environment high as a dimension of child-friendly cities. Designing pathways that maximize both actual and perceived traffic safety can benefit all users, including curb extensions, pedestrian refuges, raised road surface grade platforms at pathway street crossings, and effective social marketing of pathway improvements.
Contact with nature:
Because of their form, playful pathways offer children opportunities for engaging with nature in a unique way. Unfortunately, quality natural play spaces are generally unavailable to today’s urban and suburban children and youth. Fortunately, there is a growing movement to connect children with nature. Much of this activity demonstrates a demand for practical solutions to create close-at-hand natural play areas for children.
Connecting meaningful childhood destinations:
Underscoring the importance of neighborhood connectivity for children, a recent study from Canada demonstrated that children living within a kilometer of parks containing playgrounds were five times more likely to have a healthy weight than children without a playground nearby. Other studies have shown that parks with paved trails are more likely to be used for physical activity by adults. These findings suggest that combinations of playgrounds and paved pathways are likely to create healthy active environments to increase social interaction and therefore social capital.
Attracting adults (and accompanying children):
Although research on the use of pathways by children is limited, a number of studies related to pathway use by adults offer implications for children as well. We know that pathway characteristics that lead to higher used by adults include access to meaningful destinations, residence in shared-use neighborhoods, and pathways with mixed and open views – characteristics closely aligned to “prospect and refuge,” which children also enjoy. Incorporating these features, or locating new pathways with these features in mind, would encourage parental use and therefore would increase use by accompanying children.