Children raised in rural areas have better motor skills than urban children, study finds

JYVÄSKYLÄ, Finland — Many studies point to the mental health benefits of living in greener areas outside cities, but could living in the countryside also be better for us physically? A study out of Finland shows that young children living in rural areas have better motor skills than those living in urban areas.

The cause of this appeared to be that rural children spend more time outdoors and are thus more adapted to the demands of playing outside, according to researchers at the University of Jyväskylä.

While urban children played more organized sports than rural children and thus reaped benefits that rural children didn’t, researchers found that rural children showed more adeptness at motor skill tasks like object control and balance, which lend themselves to tasks like running, climbing, and drawing.

“In early childhood, the mastery of basic motor skills is one of the main developmental task of the child,” says lead author Donna Niemistö, of the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the university, in a statement. “Motor skills enable children to participate in various physical activities and physically active play. Mutual plays and games enable children to have friends to play with. Moreover, motor skills are also crucial when it comes to school adaptation.”

For the study, the authors assessed the motor skills of 945 children ages three to seven from 37 different childcare centers in Finland. The researchers used internationally-known and understood indicators, including locomotor and object control abilities. They also compared the skills with how much time the children spent outside playing and their participation in organized sports using a parental questionnaire.

The authors found that children generally viewed the ability to play outdoors invigorating, and had more opportunity to run, play, and explore when they had more space or larger yards. Having more space outside a home gave the children more ability to challenge themselves, practice more frequently, and improve their motor skills.

“When a child feels as competent in a given motor task, (s)he will practice more, and through the increased repetition, (s)he will gain better motor skills,” says Niemistö.

Having a yard and more space to play outside also motivated the children to spend more time outdoors, the researchers say.

The study is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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