14 Oct, 2014 Last updated: 30 Mar, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion piece first published in the Herald Sun newspaper on 14 October 2014.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

Like most people, I look back on my childhood with fond memories of summer evenings and being out playing with my friends.

When I was eight years old I began walking to school, first with my mother who walked part of the way, and later on my own. On the 20-minute journey, I’d cross what was to become the Monash Freeway and Blackburn Rd, both busy thoroughfares, even then.

While my parents warned me never to speak to strangers or approach an unfamiliar car, it was never something I truly worried about. I rode my bike through the neighbourhood until the sun began to set. I used to love going to the milk bar on my own to buy a treat.

It can sometimes feel like the world was a safer place when I was a child. But in reality, parents today share many of the same concerns my parents had – they worry their child will be harmed by a stranger, that they will be hit by a car or get lost.

Today, VicHealth is releasing the preliminary findings of a major research study, the first of its kind in Australia, examining the role that parental fear plays in shaping children's independence and physical activity.

The research was conducted by La Trobe University and the Parenting Research Centre, and involved surveying more than 2000 parents of children aged nine to 15 across Victoria.

Beyond the bubble wrap found 48 per cent of Victorian parents worry about their child being approached by a stranger and 36 per cent avoid situations where their child goes without an adult because of fears about strangers.

We know there are numerous factors that influence parents' decisions to let their child play and travel independently — from traffic concerns to parents’ work demands, childcare arrangements and external perceptions.

But we also know children who are able to play and travel without an adult and those who walk or ride to school are more likely to meet Australian physical activity guidelines.

In the 1960s, one in 20 children was overweight or obese. Today, that has risen to one in four, and is expected to become one in three by 2025. With Australian children living a more inactive lifestyle, there is an increased risk of serious health problems, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Only one in five Australian children gets the recommended one hour of physical activity every day, and only one in four walks or rides to school. Letting children become independent is a complex process for parents and every child and family situation is different. From a health perspective, it’s clear that physical activity should be an important feature in children’s lives.

The freedom my parents gave me as a child is one of the greatest things they ever did for me. I learned to navigate my neighbourhood, developed confidence and learned to interact better with peers. All parents want the best for their children and the final year of this project will involve working with experts, including parents groups, to find solutions to help parents give their children greater freedom to walk and ride to and from school and within their neighbourhood.

In the meantime, we all have a role to play in helping create safe and secure neighbourhoods for children. I now live in the western suburbs and love seeing kids out playing and riding their bikes in my local area. I want them to feel safe so I give them a wave; after all, lots of children out walking and playing is a sign of a healthy neighbourhood. And who wouldn’t want that?

- Jerril