How can we increase freedom to play?

Only one in three children are allowed out to the shops or to walk to school alone, according to a Newsround survey of over 1000 six to twelve year olds out a couple of weeks ago. One in four never go out without an adult.

Michael Murpurgo, the children’s author, is filmed on the Newsround site talking about many of the key issues – traffic, families moving round so they don’t know their neighbourhoods so well, and people just not having as much time for children as they used to.

Will Self was on Any Questions on Saturday 14th April saying – in answer to the last question – the same thing: children should be playing out.

Tim Gill did a lovely piece a few weeks ago about The outdoor child: doomed to extinction? looking at all the reasons, and another more recently summarising the evidence for why children don’t play out. These seem to boil down to:

  • attitudes of adults (family members, teachers, police, etc) have changed;
  • the inside world is more attractive; and
  • there are many more barriers in and around where we live, most notably traffic

Since then I’ve made a point of, every evening, just counting how many kids i see out without parents as I cycle the three miles home. Try it, it really opens your eyes.

For me the wildy differing amounts of freedom to play children have are summed up by reading through the quotes from the 11 year olds – children at the top of primary school or just starting at secondary school – posted on the Newsround site:

“My mum gives me the right amount of freedom. I’m allowed to go to the shops on my own, but I have to take my phone with me. I walk to school alone too, it make me feel grown up that my mum trusts me.”

Zack, 11, Derbyshire, England

“I don’t think kids have enough freedom because parents are scared that something bad will happen to their kids but they underestimate the amount we know about safety.”

Katy, 11, Wetherby, England

“I walk to school by myself, but I have to phone my mum when I get there.”

Zizi, 11, London, England

“I have so much freedom. I’m only 11 and I’m allowed four miles away on my own. I love having so much freedom!”

Katherine, 11, Preston, England

“I have a reasonable amount of freedom. The only reason my parents don’t let me out is for my own good.”

Emily, 11, England

“I’m allowed to go places like the cinema on my own if my parents drop me off. But they won’t let me go to the park with my friends which is soooo annoying.”

Aj, 11, London, England

“I don’t think kids are given enough freedom but in some ways you can see where grown-ups are coming from. They’re only trying to keep us safe. But on the other hand we will get used to being kept inside the ‘safety bubble’ they are creating.”

Amy, 11, Shrewsbury, England

“I have no freedom. I go to school with my parents and I’m not allowed to go to the shops alone. But times have changed. There are more criminals now who kidnap and things, it’s for our own good.”

Hubbab, 11, London, England

“I’m allowed to go into town but I have boundaries. I have a set part of town I can go to but have to take my phone and be back for a certain time. I think I have enough freedom, however, I have only had this freedom very recently.”

Katie, 11, Worcestershire, England

“Well, my parents let me out but not too far. To be honest I don’t REALLY like going out by myself so I choose not to.”

Izzy, 11, London, England

“I’m the only person in my class who isn’t allowed to walk to school. I don’t live near anyone I know so I get bored and watch television all day.”

Daisy, 11, Lancashire, England

ref: Newsround 40th Anniversary survey

Did you know that April 24th 2012 is the 80th anniversary of the Kinder Scout trespass? That was the spark that marked the turning point of the adult ‘right to roam’ movement. What will it take to ensure children and young people can once again have their right to roam?

I know I and many others are enjoying the Nature DeficitDisorder v Free Range Childhood v playborhood v rewilding children debate around the right metaphors to build the campaigns around. I’m also enjoying finding all the parent, grandparent, playworker and school blogs that support this issue – please do keep sharing them.

So next steps to take action – what at the local and national levels can we DO that will make real, tangible differences to children’s freedom? What should our MPs and councillors be asking for?

I am pulling together the Play England response to the National Trust’s Outdoor Nation consultation, and will be taking a steer from our members of course, and also from the debates and discussions here on Love Outdoor Play website, Facebook and Twitter.

So let me know what you think we should be saying – what should we be calling for above all else? What change in policy will do more than any other to increase children’s freedom to play?

What changes need to happen that will show that here in the UK we proudly stand up and say we all ?

12 Responses to “How can we increase freedom to play?”
  1. I really love your site.. Great colors & theme. Did you build this site yourself?
    Please reply back as I’m attempting to create my own blog and want to learn where you got this from or just what the theme is called. Appreciate it!

  2. Jan White says:

    Hi Cath, I believe that there is a substantial role for early years provision here too – the more parents experience their child being outside and gain deeper understandings of the value of this for their child, the more committed they’ll be to outdoor play and ready for free-ranging later.

  3. Personally …. I really believe we need to be reaching children and families young. Getting them out together. That way as kids grow parents have more confidence and trust in their kids abilities. We also have to re-engage the public to feel a shared sense of responsibility to watch out for kids playing outside. We need to not be afraid to step in to help, to check a kid is
    Ok without fear of allegations.

  4. xlanza says:

    By the way, my 7-year-old son rides his bike on his own to and from school every day – 1-1/2 miles each way. Also, about once or twice a week, he takes a side trip on his way home. The main thing standing in the way of kids being more independent these days is parental inertia. Kids can do it!

    • Cath Prisk says:

      Thanks for the response Mike – we’ve figured out how to get them out of limbo now! I do agree with you that a lot of what needs to be done is down to families and communities – sometimes that might mean Play England’s role is just about helping playful communities find advice or someone to help them if they need it, and sometimes that needs a change of policy. For instance many areas only allow streets to be closed for ‘street parties’ once or twice a year – we want to support our colleagues who help communities to do this every month or even every week.

      But where there is a will there is a way – and here’s hoping that through Love Outdoor Play, more communities can find their voices, and we in Play England can champion them.

  5. xlanza says:

    This is a great post, Cath, particularly the quotes from 11-year-olds! Why aren’t we Americans engaging in thoughtful debates like this?

    I do have one small quibble with what you wrote at the end, though: you ask for what changes we need in “policy” to get kids outside playing more. I don’t think government action is the primary answer. In fact, in my experience, often the best thing government can do is get out of the way. For instance, building codes often get in the way of residents making their front yards more accommodating, or transportation laws often get in the way of residents’ innovative ideas for slowing down traffic or making sidewalks more accommodating. That’s been my experience in my yard and in many other “Playborhoods” that I write about.

    You may think of my point of view as uniquely American and privileged, but I can point you to stories of strong socialists (Share-It Square & City Repair in Portland, Oregon) and liberal African-Americans (Lyman Place, South Bronx, NY), as well as many others, of non-privileged Americans who have pushed government out of the way to create a vibrant community environment that gets kids out playing.

    [BTW, I’d provide lots of links, but the last time I did that on this site, my post laid in moderation limbo.]

  6. Jean Oram says:

    My daughter isn’t allowed to walk to school, mostly because it is very far. If she had someone to walk with, I would consider it.

    However, she is allowed to roam the neighbourhood unsupervised. Whenever she wants to expand her circle, she takes a walkie-talkie with her. Mostly so her dad can tease her, it seems. (You know dads… give them a walkie talkie and it turns to fart jokes!)

    Unfortunately there are some streets in our neighbourhood that don’t have sidewalks and are narrow. My daughter isn’t comfortable riding on them and I’m not comfortable with her riding on them either, so it works out. Most of our area is pedestrian or bike friendly though and tons of kids come out to play. It’s fantastic!

  7. Kay says:

    Every child should have a park/natural space within a quarter mile (0.4 km) of their homes. Children should be going to their local school, not one on the other side of the city, so they have the possibility to walk or cycle there every day. Cycle paths should be obligatory in and around a residential/school area.

    The right of the pedestrian and cyclist needs to be raised above that of the car, they are far more vulnerable and therefore need more thought and care. If the neighbourhoods are designed around foot and cycle traffic, parents with feel better about allowing their kids to roam freely.

  8. Tim Gill says:

    Thanks for the links to my posts Cath. I’d say we need to focus on bottom-up, community-based action that is either led by or actively engages parents. As you know, I argued that this was the way Play England should be heading a while ago on my blog. Hopefully Love Outdoor Play and the Free Time Consortium will build this (and the National Trust perhaps?). Play England’s work needs to move beyond its current adventure playground-based focus – though I understand why this was where it started – because the vast majority of neighbourhoods do not have any APs. We need really simple, low-cost models that harness local energy to get more kids out of doors. I recently heard about Forest Kids Hackney for instance: a group of parents who meet regularly and go for walks/explorations with their kids on Hackney Marshes. Sounds great to me.

  9. Daniel says:

    Great post.

    I’d like to see schools taking more of a leading role in saying that they expect children to be walking to school.

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