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.Embed from Getty Images
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.
A very timely review Tim. We are doing our bit, in small ways, and I have recently completed a project with a local primary school to foster more independent outdoor play in the community but I agree the overall picture is, sadly, as you describe it!
We shall continue to do our bit…
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Really good piece Tim, and illustrates the frustration we all feel as time doesn’t alter the actual freedoms children have. Hackney’s Street Play is possibly beginning to change opinions, and I’ve actually seen children playing in streets that aren’t closed, but it’s sporadic at best. Festivals and the ‘zetgeist’ marketing of nature seem to be getting ever more aware of the importance of getting outdoors and freedom… But that doesn’t begin to translate into the lived experience of most children. Caged not just by walls but the ever increasing access to the Internet which doesn’t so much stop them going out as encourage them to stay in… And act as babysitter. So much to be done. So great to see the traction of The Wild Network and the campaign to make London a National City Park. Together we are stronger.
Can I be the first person to say that you should tweet this?
Felicity, Cath, Arthur – thanks for the comments. It’s a long, hard road. Tweets have been tweeted. More to do – and yes Cath, solidarity is strength.
Tim this blog is absolutely brilliant in what it says and how it says it all. Can you get it in The Guardian again? I want everyone to read it.
Thanks Ingrid – praise indeed. I’ll do what I can!
Beautifully put – we just have time to squeak in before this is considered normal and the trapped generation become parents with no experience of independent play
Thanks Elizabeth – a pithy way to encapsulate the task.
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Completely agree with you about the need to let children outdoor more and without supervision. However, I am more afraid of the nanny state telling me when it’s OK to leave my kids alone and less afraid of actually giving them some freedom! I dread some “helpful” neighbour calling social services on me if they disagree with my child-rearing practices. Am I the only parent to feel this way?
In your reflections you mentioned screen-based consumption. Can you tell me more about what you mean by mentioning that?
A really good article but having just had a long debate on facebook, I think parents fears are less about traffic and more about fear of paedophiles and people abducting and grooming children. I think this is the top fear among my children’s friend’s parents and mine too, living in a city where a 16 year old was recently murdered in my neighbourhood. How do we allay parents fears about this?
Thanks for the comments. Anna – re: fear of strangers and abduction – first, I think that what’s partly going on here is that the bogeyman of the predatory stranger has become a kind of encapsulation for some parents of their anxieties about the world beyond their front doors: the sum of all their fears, if you like. And that world feels more dangerous even if it is not, for all sorts of reasons (fewer people out and about on foot, greater traffic danger, more car-dependent lives fuelling a sense of isolation, greater media scaremongering around crime, and so on).
As I’m sure you know, statistically this risk is vanishingly small. See for instance this fact-check by Channel Four News, which concluded:”there is no evidence that the most serious crimes against children are on the increase. There’s no statistical reason for parents to be more worried now than in previous years. And in absolute terms, cases of abduction, homicide and serious sexual assault remain, mercifully, very rare.”
More widely, there has probably never been a safer period to be a child in human history, at least in the more affluent countries of the world (the big child killers – war, famine, infectious diseases – are not even on the radar screen). See eg this thoughtful review from 2007 – [pdf link] which concluded “the world is generally a safer place for children than in the past. Children live longer and are healthier, and they have fewer accidents of all kinds including road traffic accidents. Furthermore, and despite extensive media reporting of danger and violence in our communities, there is little evidence to confirm that either ‘stranger danger’ or crime has got markedly worse.”
But numbers rarely persuade the highly anxious. I think a different tack is more promising, starting with the obvious yet under-appreciated fact that childhood is a kind of journey, and at its end lies independence, responsibility and hopefully a degree of confidence and resilience. Surely all parents want our kids to be responsible, capable, independent, confident people?
My hunch is that what just might get parents to change their minds on this is to, in effect, fight fear with fear: specifically, the fear that by denying their children the chance to learn how to look after themselves in everyday situations, overprotective parents may leave them seriously struggling to cope as they grow up. Sooner or later our kids need to learn to deal with everyday stresses and strains in life – especially emotional and social stresses. There is clear evidence that teenagers are finding this increasingly difficult. Adolescent mental health problems have been growing fast in recent decades – with serious and in some cases life-threatening consequences – and experts think that one of the reasons is kids not having enough opportunities to learn coping mechanisms.
So the question to the anxious parent with pre-teenage children is this: when do you want your kids to learn this stuff? Now, when they’re pretty safe and you can gradually allow them to expand their horizons, or after the hormones and social whirl of the teenage years have kicked in and the steps they will be taking are likely to be bigger and more stressful?
Added to this, it’s becoming apparent that the virtual world has its own risks. So first, keeping children indoors is hardly risk-free, and second, arguably children learn how to navigate these new risks at least in part through their ability to do things like read facial expressions and body language and decode social cues. These abilities are only learnt in the real world, and are all but impossible to teach – they have to be learnt largely through experience.
Let me know how all this sounds to you!
Thank you Tim. These are some of the things I have been reading and mulling over for a while but you have helped me to put them in perspective. My childhood was free and adventurous compared to today’s kids’ and I have been feeling uneasy about aspects of my children’s childhood for some time. I have been making steps to encourage them to be more independent but I have been surprised at my reaction to other people’s barely concealed concern or disapproval! It seems over-protection is now the “norm.”