Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Jason A. Gilliland


This dissertation examines children’s everyday neighbourhood activities, and the role of the local environment in supporting or limiting their healthy behaviours. Research from the last two decades has documented a dramatic decline in the time children spend playing in their neighbourhood settings, and engaging in local active and independent travel. Traditionally, neighbourhood-based activities have fostered key developmental and health outcomes, including higher levels of physical fitness, the negotiation of new social relationships, and increased cognitive and environmental competence. The processes of carving out neighbourhood ‘domains’ for independent activity and establishing community relationships are also linked to the development of a healthy self-identity and attachment to place. The loss of neighbourhood experiences may therefore have adverse consequences for children’s health and well-being.

This study identifies and investigates patterns in children’s (aged 7 to 13 years) environmental perception, activity and mobility in various neighbourhoods within the mid-sized Canadian city of London, Ontario. Children’s local activities are examined through three complementary case studies utilizing a broad range of experiential, visual and qualitative tools, coupled with objective activity monitoring via portable GPS. Patterns in perception and behaviour were evident, but findings reinforce that children’s neighbourhood activities are highly individual and complex. Children were attuned to locally available activity opportunities, but neighbourhood engagements were generally limited and largely passive in nature. Recreational and commercial sites were identified as highly prized local destinations, but study neighbourhoods did not fully support the children’s diverse preferences. Many of the criteria of ‘child-friendly’ environments were lacking in study neighbourhoods.

Findings also confirm that neighbourhood activity and mobility is influenced not only by individual characteristics such as a child’s age, but by neighbourhood social and physical conditions, as well as parent perceptions of this environment. Permission from parents for active, independent travel strongly predicted neighbourhood activity, generally expanding the size of a child’s domain and the time spent in local settings. On the whole, however, children spent little of their free time in neighbourhood environments; pedestrian-based domains were generally very small, comprised primarily of the area immediately surrounding their home. This research provides additional evidence that the local domains of children are shrinking, and that the neighbourhood is no longer a primary setting for childhood activities. These findings suggest that the primary landscapes of play are changing in ways that may be detrimental to children’s healthy development.