As a child, I played in the street, and wandered about in the woods with other young folk. I was about eleven when I was allowed to go walkabout in the day. My mother had played in the street, as had my grandmother. Previous generations of children grew up with a lot more freedom. Laurie Lee’s autobiography ‘Cider with Rosie’ shows boys playing in the woods and fields of a summer night in the early twentieth century. Other memoires from the time show children running wild from an early age.
These days, most children are battery farmed. They stay safely in the house until they can be driven to school, then we drive them home and keep them under close supervision. We do this to keep them safe. Anxiety about stranger danger is high – not that I think it’s actually increased, but it makes the news and so we hear about it when things go wrong. Of course, the fewer children there are out and about, the more exposed and vulnerable they are.
The other great danger we truly have to protect children from is cars. Streets are not safe places any more. Traffic is heavy, too fast, too likely to kill. Crossing the road is a dangerous business. And so we drive our young humans to school, and to the park and the cinema, adding to the problem of an excess of traffic.
For the parent intent on bringing their child up well, there’s also the feeling that we ought to be spending every available moment cramming them full of learning opportunities. However, that takes away as much as it gives. Children don’t learn to innovate, if they have every activity handed to them. They don’t learn how to make their own fun, or their own choices.
In addition to the little house and car shaped boxes, we further box in our young folk with televisions, games consul and the internet. We encourage them to spend hours staring at little boxes because it keeps them quiet. We keep them in the house, safe, and buy them all the boxes they desire to keep them happy. We battery farm them, expecting them to squeeze out excellent exam results, once we start testing them – aged seven. What kind of childhood are these younger generations actually getting?
Children need the opportunity to learn and make choices. They need the space to run around and the company of other children. They need the freedom to explore and create on their own terms, following their own inspiration, not just doing what they’ve been told. If they aren’t able to tackle small risks and dangers, how are they supposed to function as adults when there’s no one to hold their hand?
And what happens when these kids turn into teenagers, unable to entertain themselves? Then we let them out to stand around on street corners. When I was a teen, it tended to be the most closeted, overprotected kids in my circle who drank until they threw up and otherwise got into difficulty because they had no idea how to handle things. Now most of them seem to have been overprotected, and far too many go off the rails. Excessive alcohol consumption in the young is a recognised problem, and I don’t think this is a coincidence.
Time outside is good for children. Unstructured time where they can play and explore without having adults perpetually monitoring what they do. Children need privacy too. I’m lucky, I live on a fairly quiet street with a small cluster of trees at the end, and other parents round here are also in favour of free range children, so they rampage about together. It makes for happier, healthier kids.
Our streets should be safe to walk on, play in. We shouldn’t be designing infrastructure based on the assumption that everyone will go by car. As drivers, we need to slow down and be more careful. Thirty miles an hour is too fast in residential areas. In London some places have a limit of twenty, which is a bit more like it, but there are too many folk who don’t respect those limits as it is.
We need to reclaim our streets and public spaces if the young folk we bring into this world are to have any quality of life. If we all undertook to walk more and drive less, that would make a lot of odds. There is so much to gain here, but it’s going to take a concerted effort to make spaces safe for children again – not from the fear of stranger danger, but from the very real threat of irresponsible car use. If you don’t think battery farming chickens is ok, then please do spare a thought for the issue of free range children.