Back Off, Mom. Parents Who Hover Impede Kids’ Activity

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Parents, if you want your kids to get more exercise, you’d be wise to get out of their way.

In a new study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers sought to observe how kids play in parks. Their overarching goal was to help park designers create public spaces that would better entice kids to run around and exercise. But along the way, the authors discovered something else: the single biggest barrier to children’s physical activity had less to do with park design itself and more to do with the hovering presence of a parent.

Children whose parents hung around monitoring them closely were only about half as likely to engage in high levels of physical activity as kids whose parents granted more freedom, the researchers found.

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“It’s a catch-22 for today’s parents, unfortunately. Many parents are worried about the safety of their children, so they tend to hover,” said study co-author Dr. Jason Bocarro, associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at North Carolina State University, in a statement.

The problem is that the more parents “helicopter” — lingering anxiously under the jungle gym or admonishing their child, Not too high!, on the swings — the less likely their kids are to run around and play actively with their friends.

Previous research has also shown that parental concern about neighborhood safety leads to less activity in young children, perhaps influencing them to stay home watching TV or playing video games instead. For a country in which child obesity has reached epidemic proportions, that’s not a good thing.

For the new study, researchers spent eight weeks in the summer of 2007 collecting data on 2,712 children by observing them play in 20 randomly selected parks around Durham, N.C. In general, the researchers found, the youngest kids (5 or younger) were more active than older ones, and boys on the whole were more active than girls.

Researchers saw higher levels of activity in parks with playing courts like basketball and tennis courts, though it was boys who were more likely to be using them; girls, on the other hand, were typically found in playgrounds.

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The most powerful positive influence when it came to vigorous activity was the presence of other energetic kids. “Other active children in the park zone increased the odds of higher physical activity levels 3.67 times,” the authors wrote.

And nothing appeared to put the brakes on a kid’s frolicking like an omnipresent parent (and, to a lesser extent, nonparental adult guardians like a teacher or coach). No one’s suggesting that parents let their children run off to the park alone, of course. But the authors recommend that park designers keep worried parents in mind.

“If children’s play environments are designed for the whole family with comfortable, shady places to sit and observe kids playing from a distance, parents may be less inclined to ‘helicopter’ and impede spontaneous play,” said co-author Robin Moore, professor of landscape architecture and director of the Natural Learning Initiative at N.C. State.

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So, the next time you take your kid to the park, try taking a seat on the bench and letting your child figure things out on his own. It’s O.K. if he struggles or even falls down. His missteps may help keep you from making your own.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.