How Do Rural Mothers Keep Their Kids Safe During Outdoor Play?

Research shows that rural maternal fears aren't that different from urban fears.

wheelbarrow ride
A mother takes her child for a wheelbarrow ride.

Getty Images/Zing Images

With children's outdoor play declining in many places across the United States and Canada, it's more important than ever to figure out what exactly parents fear – and how those fears can be addressed in a way that allows children to reclaim their rightful place outside.

Some interesting new research from the universities of Ottawa and British Columbia looks specifically at rural mothers' attitudes toward outdoor play – what they think and worry about and the steps they take to ensure their children's safety. As the study explains, most play research up until now has focused on urban and suburban mothers, but rural mothers' perspectives are a crucial component of determining what families need to encourage more outdoor play. 

The study, published in the Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, explains that many fathers do oversee their children's play and tend to encourage riskier play, but mothers are blamed more for their children's injuries and "are expected to adopt strategies that mitigate the potential for their children to experience harm." Thus their insights are helpful for understanding how they strive to keep kids safe.

What Rural Mothers Do

The researchers interviewed families from rural Ontario and British Columbia, Canada, all with children between the ages of 2 and 7. This is considered a pivotal time when children are "learning risk navigation strategies during social, playground, and pre-school play." Three common themes emerged:

  1. Rural mothers keep their children close, both physically and audibly.
  2. They enforce geographic boundaries to outdoor play.
  3. They teach their children outdoor risk-navigation strategies.

When it comes to keeping kids close, mothers may choose a vantage point close to an open window to keep an eye and ear open to what their children are doing outside. They try always to be aware of where their children are playing, what and with whom they are playing, and to be available if assistance is required.

Geographic boundaries are used to determine a safe space for children to play. The study states, "This was practiced by providing clear instructions to children for where they were permitted or forbidden to play, or by limiting access to certain environments or objects by, for example, closing doors or hiding dangerous tools." Parents mentioned building fences and providing children with instructions for how to move through a space safely.

As for outdoor risk-navigation strategies, this refers to discussions mothers have with their children about what could go wrong and how to deal with it. Some of the mothers showed a willingness to let their kids engage in risky play and learn from the experience of minor injuries. One described a conversation with a friend about letting her kid climb a tree. 

"[The friend says,] 'I’d kill my son if he went up there,’ and I said ‘what’s the point? If I ... get after him today his dad will take him up the tree tomorrow.’ And they’ve fallen out of trees, one has broken his arm, and ... so it’s teaching and trying to get them to think."

The research shows that, contrary to societal assumptions, rural mothers aren't all that different from urban and suburban mothers. Lead author and PhD student Michelle Bauer told Treehugger, "The really interesting thing about this study is that the results may suggest that, although there can be differences in the physical environment in which children play outdoors, such as being in more contact with animals in rural neighborhoods, the ways in which rural mothers protect children may be more similar to urban mothers than we think."

Risk Needs to Be Reframed

The mothers expressed fears mostly about traffic and abduction, and these came up regardless of housing density or socioeconomic status. The researchers point out that, despite abduction being rare, it remains a pervasive fear for rural mothers. (Free-range parenting advocate Lenore Skenazy points out that, based on statistics, if you wanted your kid to be abducted by a stranger, you'd have to let him or her stand unattended outside for 750,000 years.) Traffic-related incidents are far more likely, with "very real increases in traffic resulting from industrialization in some rural communities."

Equipped with this information, the researchers hope that family health advocates and policy-makers can do a better job at communicating with parents about potential risks and risk mitigation. For example, "Family health advocates should consider including safety information on abductions and road traffic incidents in the materials they disseminate to rural families [and] directing rural mothers towards risk-reframing tools and resources" that can help them lead discussions with kids about risky play. 

The ultimate goal is to get kids outside more than they are currently. We know how much it benefits them – teaching them about nature, encouraging physical activity, and helping them to learn conflict-resolution skills – but maternal fears must be addressed in order for this kind of play to become the norm once again.

As Bauer said, "In Canada, we know that children's outdoor play is more restricted compared to previous generations and that these restrictions can partially contribute to negative health outcomes. What we want to do is work with parents to understand their role in these restrictions, their concerns, and their safety strategies, so that we can better support and work with them to provide balanced outdoor play opportunities for their children."

This study is part of a larger research project "that examines parents’ perspectives on parenting, children’s outdoor play, and child protection," so there will be more information in coming months and years. 

View Article Sources
  1. Bauer, Michelle E., et al. "Rural Mothers’ Perspectives on Keeping their Children Safe During Outdoor Play: ‘It’s Hard to Raise A Child in a Small Community.'" Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 2021, pp. 1-11, doi:10.1080/14729679.2021.1902827