UCL News


How children negotiate the great outdoors

6 July 2005

A group of UCL academics are exploring how children use the local environment to find out how it can be improved to meet their needs better and help produce a safer environment for them, and hence for all society.

The GPS monitor

Led by UCL's Professor Roger Mackett (Centre for Transport Studies), the Children's Activities, Perceptions and Behaviour in the Local Environment (CAPABLE) research group includes experts from the department of Psychology, the Bartlett School of Planning and the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA).

"There is increasing recognition of the needs of children in the transport field, as they play a significant part in the generation of local trips, many by car, and the government is keen that open spaces be cleaner, safer and greener. In the past, children were allowed to go out unaccompanied by adults from an early age, walking to school and playing with their friends in parks, play areas and on the street. Nowadays, significantly fewer young children are allowed out alone and so they travel by car on many short trips. This change has implications for children in terms of their physical activity, developing independent skills, active social play and for parents in terms of how much time they devote to escorting and supervising their children," explains Professor Mackett.

Professor Mackett's previous study 'Reducing Children's Car Use' showed that walking to school can contribute as much as exercise as a PE class, and that children who walk to school are much more likely to be active while at school. "This project will expand on that work beyond the journey to school to the way that children interact with the whole of the local environment," says Professor Mackett.

"The aim is to examine the implications of various types of geometry and design on children's behaviour - with reference to their use and understanding of space and road safety - and cognitive processes, particularly spatial cognition and the understanding of maps. Children make trips that adult pedestrians generally do not; for instance repetitively using small spatial areas while playing, exploring and 'hanging out'. Children's personal travel and play activities also extend to use of scooters, skateboards and so on, as well as walking and cycling."

Initially, children aged 9 to 11 from schools in Lewisham and Hertfordshire will participate in the study by keeping a diary of their activities for four days, as well as being fitted with global positioning satellite (GPS) equipment and RT3 accelerometers. The GPS equipment, a small device discreetly worn on the wrist, can monitor the child's location at set intervals which can subsequently be superimposed on a map to allow researchers to track the child's movements. The RT3 device measures the amount of energy expended during periods of activity and rest.

In addition, questionnaires will be conducted with the children and their parents to obtain information about their perceptions of the local environment and the implications it has for their cognitive development and their degree of alertness, as well as parents' attitudes towards the local environment and their child's safety. This data will then be collated to build a picture of the children's movements, activity, spatial awareness and skills.

GPS output

Once the data has been collected, it will be analysed to explore the children's movement patterns and networks - as revealed by the GPS records - and the impact the local environment has on children's behaviour, perception and learning. Factors concerning environmental interaction such as travel modes, physical activity, purposes of trips and places visited will be compared to establish levels of physical activity, social interaction and environmental interaction that relate to outcomes including physical health, self-esteem, and cognitive and social development.

Simulation models will then be constructed by CASA from the survey work, its interpretations and the measurement of paths and networks, which will describe how children negotiate their local environment in making journeys from home to school. The models will be based on predicting the paths that children take through their local neighbourhoods in terms of the factors influencing their way finding.

"From these simulations, it will be possible to examine a school district and discover - given the physical and socio-economic conditions of the area - the number of children able to walk safely to school, accompanied or unaccompanied, where they will walk and how the numbers walking can be changed by introducing new physical designs into the environment," explains

Professor Mackett. "The main beneficiaries of this work will be the children who will have local environments which meet their needs better, and their parents who will be more confident to let their children go out alone. Facilitating walking by children can help improve their health, with long-term reductions in heart disease, strokes and type II diabetes. The improved local environments will be more pleasant for everybody who wants to walk, meet or chat in a pleasant outdoor space. Increasing the levels of pedestrians should also help reduce opportunities for unobserved criminal activities."

Images: Top - The GPS monitor. Bottom - A day's output from a child wearing a monitor.

To find out more about the project use the link below.

Link: CAPABLE project