THE SOCIAL DIMENSION OF PLACES FOR PHYSICAL ACTIVITY cannot be overemphasised when it comes to teenagers. Teenagers’ choices about how they spend their free time are strongly influenced by a need to be together with certain or particular types of people or, in contrast, a need to withdraw into solitude. These aspirations are often much stronger motives behind a choice of physical activity than the benefits of the activity per se. The physical activity may only be a vehicle for something more important, and a young person might engage in it to be part of a group, or, to enable them to withdraw from company.
A fifteen-year-old girl might hang around the sports ground in her neighbourhood and join the game with the aim of chilling out with others and getting to know them socially. Another might prefer a walk in the woods with a friend, as this provides the privacy and peace to talk. A third may be playing games in an activity park while looking after and enjoying her time with a younger sibling. One might go to the gym one day to be with a friend who is into weight training and choose to sit at the mall the next day to be part of another social group. The social needs in a teenager’s daily life are many and varied – and the same goes for incentives to move or not to move.
WHAT MATTERS is what the young person has around them at the moment they decide what to do next, where to direct their energy. Exercise should be a valid option at those moments when there is time for it. The possibilities for physical activity must be there where the young people are: where they live, where they hang out with friends, the routes they take during their daily travel and movements, where they willingly choose to be. What is there within easy grasp will be grasped.
So, what if the places where teenagers hang around were equipped with structures that withstand and even encourage climbing and gymnastics, instead of simply having benches to sit on? What if public spaces and residential areas were designed to include elements that encourage people of all ages to move more? Would such structures make adults take that extra step, too?
Exploring your environment by moving in it makes the environment more familiar, safer and easier to form an attachment with. These considerations are not at all irrelevant to the happiness of our young people or to their developing into thriving members of their community and society. Spontaneous activity does not always fit within the institutional boundaries of organised sports, and that’s precisely why it is so important. The freedom of just having fun with physicality deserves to be acknowledged.