Tuesday 4 August 2009

Let the Children Play

Adults’ fears and mistrust are the reason our youngsters can no longer enjoy free-roaming summer holidays, says Helene Guldberg in The Independent

A report published last week titled Big Mothered Britain found that traditional childhood games – such as skipping, taking part in conker fights, climbing trees and playing hopscotch – are in danger of dying out in today’s overprotective culture. The survey of 4,000 parents, commissioned by Robinson’s Fruit Shoot, shows that 80 per cent of parents believe our “cotton-wool culture” is to blame.

Children are indeed losing out on many of the childhood experiences that my generation took for granted. There is a real danger that by cocooning, overprotecting and oversupervising children, society could end up denying the next generation the opportunity to mature and develop into becoming capable, confident adults. Children need to be given space away from adults’ watchful eyes – in order to play, experiment, take risks (within a sensible framework provided by adults), test boundaries, have arguments, fight, and learn how to resolve conflicts without adult intervention.

Today, they are increasingly denied these opportunities. Parents feel compelled to monitor their children a lot more closely, and research indicates that children’s games have steadily moved indoors into adult-controlled environments. There are far fewer children and young people out and about on street corners or in parks unaccompanied by adults. The much-quoted UK study One False Move shows a dramatic decrease in children’s independent mobility over the period of two decades. Whereas in 1971, 80 per cent of seven- and eight-yearoldchildren in England were allowed to travel to school on their own, in 1990 the figure was only 9 per cent. Figures from the Department for Transport show the proportion of primary school children who walked or cycled to school unaccompanied was as low as 5 per cent in 2006.

According to research by Play England, a campaign group sponsored by the National Children’s Bureau that calls for children to have access to good and free local play space, in 2003 some 67 per cent of eight- to 10- year-olds and 24 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds had never been to the park or the shops on their own. Similarly, research by Colin Pooley at Lancaster University in 2006 shows that few of the young children interviewed by him and his researchers had dealt with many risks, and compared with earlier generations they had not had the opportunity to learn to negotiate or to deal with challenges. Ironically, if children miss out on opportunities for developing a sense of risk and danger, and taking more and more responsibility for their own lives, they are likely to be at even greater risk when they eventually are let out in the “big, bad world” without having learnt essential skills.

How did we get to the situation in the first place where risk was seen as bad for children rather than something they needed to learn to deal with as a part of growing up? The media have a lot to answer for. No doubt, parental fears have been exacerbated by the relentless reporting of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007, and the previous stories we remember only too well: the murders of the Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002, and the abduction and killing of Sarah Payne in 2000. But to focus all our fire on the media is to let more official sources of fear off the hook: in particular, governments and the charities they create and sponsor.

There is no shortage of government-sponsored campaigns that try to poison children’s minds with fear and distrust. Take the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act – passed into law in England and Wales in 2006 – which requires that millions of adults whose work involves coming into contact with children undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks first. The message this gives to parents and children is to be suspicious of any adult who wants to work with children. In effect, every adult is presented as a potential paedophile.

This is also the case in relation to taking photographs of children. It is almost impossible in Britain today to take photos of one’s children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews in public places if they are surrounded by other children. The rules governing the use of cameras and camera-phones in swimming pools, parks, at children’s parties, school sports days and any other placewhere children might be present are ubiquitous and strictly enforced. The kind of photos that have traditionally appeared in many a family album are now treated as being akin to potential child pornography. This is a very sad development.

Ultimately, parents will only give children the independence they need if they have sufficient trust in other adults – trust in them not to harm their children but to look out for them. When we grew up, our parents assumed that if we got into trouble other adults, often strangers, would help out. Today that trust does not exist – or, at least, it has been seriously damaged by government policy and media debate, along with a rising culture of suspicion towards adults’ motives. Asad consequence of this corrosion of trust is the impact it can have on children themselves. There is a danger that many children are going to grow up fearing and deriding the adult world. A Child’s Place, a report by the think-tank Demos and the Green Alliance, found that children are keen to spend more time out of the house but they will often be too frightened to do so because they associate being outdoors with danger.

And a survey of 800 children aged between four and 16 carried out by the Children’s Society and the Children’s Play Council in 2001 found that 25 per cent were put off playing outside for fear of being bullied by older children. We need to ask what the consequences will be for society – and for children themselves – if the trust that children have traditionally placed in the various people in their lives is to be continually undermined and eroded by external third parties.

It is only by challenging the safety-obsessed culture that depicts every adult and child as a potential threat that we can start to build a better future, and present, for our children and ourselves.

First published by The Independent