I originally wrote this article for the Guardian in 2004, on leaving the Children’s Play Council (now Play England). Last weekend’s Big Garden Birdwatch prompted me to ask how much the picture it painted has changed in the intervening decade or so. First, I will share the article itself, followed by some reflections.
Bred in captivity 
This weekend saw the Big Garden Birdwatch, a nationwide survey that has been organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds since 1979. But I can’t help contemplating a survey of a different species: a Big Outdoor Child Watch.
I know only too well what it would find. Chicks are now pretty much extinct, outside their own nest areas and a shrinking number of poorly maintained reserves. Juveniles, common in the 1970s, declined in numbers throughout the 1980s and are now rarely seen away from their parents, except in impoverished areas. And adolescents, though not yet endangered, are seen as pests and controlled accordingly. In sum, children and young people are fast disappearing from the outdoor environment, even though for most this is their preferred habitat.
The ecology of children apparently being less interesting than that of birds, there is little hard data around. We do have Mayer Hillman’s classic One False Move, a study of children’s independent mobility. It suggests that, in a single generation between 1971 and 1990, the “home habitat” of a typical eight-year-old – the area in which children are able to travel on their own – has shrunk to one-ninth of its former size. The most recent study, published in 2013, shows that the picture is now if anything even worse.
Do not underestimate the significance of this change. For the first time in the 200,000-year-plus history of our species, we are effectively trapping children indoors at the very point when their bodies and minds are primed to start getting to grips with the world outside the home.
Taking an ecological perspective not only dramatises these childhood changes, it also sheds light on their consequences. Research from the young of other species shows that captivity causes a fall in physical, cognitive, social and emotional competences. In children, at risk is what naturalists might term survival mechanisms, but what psychologists call resilience.
Sceptics may ask about the relevance of animal findings to our own species. But there’s a lot of supporting evidence. Health experts agree that the decline in outdoor play is linked to physical inactivity and child obesity. And they believe that a lack of opportunities for social interaction may well have a role to play in depression, anxiety and conduct disorders.
The decline is, in part, a side effect of wider social changes. Shrinking families, more parents working longer hours and increasingly fragmented communities have left children with fewer friendly faces to look out for them. Many more children have their own rooms, and the entertainment industry makes ever more seductive indoor offers to stave off cabin fever.
Fear plays a key role: parents’ fears of traffic (probably justified) and strangers (arguably not), and children’s fear of crime and bullying. There is also growing hostility to children in public space. Behaviour that would a few years ago have been “larking about” is now labelled antisocial, and parents fear being judged harshly if their kids are seen out of doors unaccompanied.
As with birds, so with children: their presence all over the place, in diversity and numbers, is a sure sign of a healthy human habitat. To achieve that, our transport and planning priorities need to change, including such measures as 20mph speed limits in the streets where children live. That, in turn, implies a change in adult attitudes – something that pessimists say just isn’t going to happen.
The success and popularity of initiatives like Playing Out – regular, resident-led road closures so children can play and adults can meet and chat – suggests the pessimists might be wrong. They show that many local communities want to live in habitats where the noise of children playing outside is not a sign of neglect but a sound to raise the spirits. Like the first cuckoo of spring.
There is no denying the good things that have happened in recent years to tackle the shrinking of children’s horizons. The global children and nature movement is now a force to be reckoned with. Active play is now recognised by experts as part and parcel of a healthy, happy childhood. And as the planet becomes ever more urbanised, some civic leaders are asking hard questions about what it is like for children to grow up in cities where their needs and wishes are ignored.
Yet from the point of view of most of the world’s children, these positive changes are all but invisible. The forces that close down their everyday freedoms – badly planned housing, car dependence, schoolification, screen-based consumption and society-wide risk aversion – appear to be stronger than ever.
Behind these forces lies a growing gulf between the generations: one that rationalises the idea of rearing children in captivity, and that leaves parents ever more isolated and scapegoated. So much for the village raising the child.
Guerrilla Geographer Dan Raven-Ellison brilliantly fleshed out the story in a recent essay recounting his field survey of one South London green space, Summerhouse Hill Woods. Over 2000 children aged 5-12 live within 10 minutes of the park the woods are in. But over an entire sunny Saturday, he saw not a single unaccompanied child.
Yet the truth is that no-one gets up in the morning and thinks ‘how can I keep children trapped indoors?’ Children’s disappearance from the public realm is best understood as a side-effect of modern life. There is no smoking gun – and no silver bullet either. This makes tackling the issue especially challenging.
What my work aims to do is to make sure we adults are asking the right questions, even if we have not yet figured out all – or any – of the answers. It is what I tried to do in this article, and I like to think it still has resonance. Let me know what you think.
Notes and acknowledgements: this post is adapted from an opinion piece published in the Guardian (that’s right: the actual newspaper) on 20 September 2004. I have added in references, removed/updated some content that is now out-of-date, and corrected one or two errors. I have also added a clause on Playing Out – the only anachronism, and my most significant concession to change. This is because I think that resident-led street play initiatives are the most important movement to expand children’s horizons to have emerged in the last decade.