Building a World for Free Range Kids

The National Physical Activity Plan is currently being updated, and to some this may seem to be nothing more than an exercise in rhetoric. It could be argued that it’s just adding more words that keep saying the same thing:

1. Americans should be more physically active, and …

2. We need to put in place programs, physical infrastructure, and policies that make this more likely to occur.

The plan proposes to build a world, as it were, where being physically active is the default. As a member of the team working on the Transportation, Land Use, and Community Design sector (TLUCD), and a collaborator with many of the other sector teams, I can say that with this update the plan is taking an important evolutionary step. It’s getting into the weeds and exploring the details of what it’s going to take to actually create such settings. Or in plain English, exploring what it’s going to take to rebuild a world for free range children.1

In workshops and conferences across the country I ask adults to recall how they were physically active when they were very young, and invariably the conversation turns to neighborhood games of tag, wiffle ball, and street hockey; to riding bikes to friends’ homes and walking to school; to forts in the woods or fields, and city lots adopted for pick-up baseball and “Red Rover.” Many adults recall to one degree or another a free range youth. Admittedly the passage of decades has led to major socio-demographic shifts – more homes with a single parent or two working parents, for example. But equally important are tremendous changes in our built environment, from more consolidated schools and aggregation of ballfields into centralized sports complexes, to the “suburbanization” of our housing and shopping, and the widening of roads to accommodate the traffic that these changes induce. Although many adults broadly speak of concerns for children’s safety from crime as an issue, when specifically asked why their children don’t walk or bike to school the barriers most cited by parents were distance (62%), traffic (30%), weather (19%), and other issues (15%) all before fear of crime (12%).2 This and other studies suggest that infrastructure and policy issues play a strong role in determining perceptions of safety and our children’s opportunities to range freely.3

As a result, the TLUCD sector will not just be saying we’ve got to build communities that encourage more walking, bicycling, and transit use – wonderful forms of physical activity, to be sure. (Note that we always include transit, because a growing body of evidence suggests routine transit riders get meaningful amounts of physical activity at either end of their trips!)4 It’s digging into the policy and infrastructure realities of building that world, calling for changes at three different scales of action. These are land use (where we build things), transportation networks (how we connect them), and site design (how they work when we get there). The most obvious is the need for universal, high-quality facilities such as sidewalks, multi-use trails, and (where practical) frequent affordable transit service; what many would call a comprehensive network for active transportation.

There is also a clear call for action at the macro-scale of land use decisions, and the micro-scale of site design. As long as different types of land uses and activities are physically separate, it’s very unlikely people will walk, bike, or take transit between them.  A mix of housing, shopping, employment, leisure and other opportunities, on the other hand, have been seen to encourage higher rates of active transportation. Simply put, people walk more when the places where they live, work, shop, play, learn, and pray are closer together and intermingled, not spread apart.5

Similarly, the design and layout of those destinations have to actually reward rather than punish people for showing up without a car. Features such as buildings up next to the sidewalk, with parking on-street or behind the building rather than a giant parking lot between the street and the building, make it more inviting and safer to walk, bike, or step off the bus. Street trees, benches, pedestrian scale lighting, and bicycle racks, once considered “amenities,” are now recognized as functional and important street furnishings for users of all ages and abilities. This position has recently been reaffirmed by the Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Walking and Walkable Communities.6 At its heart, this evidenced-based summary says two things: People have to walk more, and for that to happen we must build a much more walkable world.

The result is a more detailed prescription in the National Physical Activity Plan that will require implementation at the federal, state, regional, and local level. Specifically it calls for very fundamental changes in land use planning and zoning, transportation funding and implementation, and local community design and permitting. Inconveniently, there is no single place or entity that oversees all of these decisions and actions. But all Americans can take action to create healthier community designs through their own work, and collaboration with those in a host of allied fields such as planning, transportation engineering, public works, parks and recreation, economic development, education, housing, and transit. Most important of all, we can all take part in policy advocacy to elected and appointed officials to assure that all of our transportation, land use, and design decisions create settings where the next generation has a better chance of growing up as free range kids. And that’s a big win because if our landscape is more inviting and functional for kids, our youngest and most vulnerable members of society, then works for people of all ages, incomes, abilities and disabilities. We’ll be building free range communities for everyone.

Mark Fenton is a nationally recognized public health, planning, and transportation consultant, adjunct associate professor at Tufts University, advocate for active transportation, and former host of “America’s Walking” on PBS television. He’s consulted with the University of North Carolina’s National Center for Safe Routes to School and has led training and planning processes for pedestrian-, bicycle-, and transit-friendly designs in communities across the United States. He studied engineering and biomechanics at the Massachusetts Institute Technology and US Olympic Training Center, was manager of the Human Performance Laboratory at Reebok, and has published articles related to exercise science, physical activity promotion, and community interventions as well as numerous books. He also tries to practice what he preaches, serving on his community’s planning board, and walking or cycling for as many routine trips as possible.

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1 Fenton M, Community Design and Policies for Free Range Children, Childhood Obesity, Feb 2012, 8(1):44-51.

2 Barriers to Children Walking to School, MMWR, Sep 30, 2005; 54(38);949-952.

3 Nasar, JL. Creating Places That Promote Physical Activity: Perceiving is Believing. San Diego, CA: Active Living Research; 2015. Available at

4 Larsen Active Commuting and CVD Risk, The Cardia Study, Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(13):1216-1223.

5 Frank, L., & Kavage, S. (2009). A national plan for physical activity: the enabling role of the built environment. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 6 (Supplement 2), S186-S195.

6 Dept. of Health and Human Services, Step it Up, The Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Walking and Walkability.

Suggested Citation: Fenton, M. (2015). Building a World for Free Range Kids. National Physical Activity Plan Alliance Commentaries on Physical Activity and Health, 1(3).

Oliver Bartzsch is an experienced medical professional with over 15 years of professional experience. With a passion for medicine, fitness, and personal growth, he is always willing to challenge himself to accomplish tasks and especially to provide accurate medical information to people. Oliver is a long-time medical editor for multiple sites. With more than 10 years of medical writing experience, he has completed over 350 projects with both individual and corporate clients.


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