Inner-city kids afraid to play outside, says U of A study

It’s hard to play hopscotch on a street corner where prostitutes are wooing customers; tough to play tag in a park prowled by gang members.

EDMONTON — It’s hard to play hopscotch on a street corner where prostitutes are wooing customers; tough to play tag in a park prowled by gang members.

So it didn’t come as a huge surprise to University of Alberta researcher Nick Holt when a study he headed came to the conclusion that children in dangerous, inner-city neighbourhoods are often too frightened to play outside.

What shocked him were the stories.

“Some younger kids told us they had made a fort in a playground one day,” recalled Holt. “They went back there the next day and it had been used by drug users during the night and it was covered in needles.”

“It was a much bleaker picture than I was expecting.”

For the last two years, Holt and his research team interviewed 59 students with an average age of 12, eight school staff and 13 youth workers in a poor, crime-ridden neighbourhood to determine their levels of physical activity.

The researchers found that while there was an abundance of playgrounds, park space, programming and places to walk, children were too scared to use them.

The study found that in many cases, parents rarely allowed their children out alone.

When a relative was available to go along, the children said they liked to play outside, but for many of the families, especially those with single parents, that was difficult to accomplish.

Organized, adult-supervised activities in the evening were abundant, but the researchers found there were problems recruiting and retaining staff and volunteers, and sometimes children were so scared to leave at a program’s conclusion they had to be accompanied home by staff members.

“My first day of work . . . the house across the street was cordoned off because there was a murder the night before,” one teacher told the research team.

“These kids see things in this neighbourhood that you don’t see in a lot of neighbourhoods.

“You don’t see people passed out in the back alley. You don’t see meth addicts tweaking on the corners.”

Holt allowed that the fear phenomenon may not be unique to inner-city neighbourhoods, noting a study in London, Ont., found playgrounds anywhere are barely used between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

“We rarely hear stories, ‘Today, thousands of kids around Canada had fantastic and fun experiences in playgrounds.’

“But when something negative does happen, you’ll hear about that,” he explained.

However, he suggested that while children in affluent neighbourhoods have heard the horror stories, kids in the inner city have seen them.

He said the situation is not unique to Edmonton, and other metropolitan areas in Canada have inner-city neighbourhoods with similar characteristics.

The study will appear in December 2009 issue of the international journal Health and Place.

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