Tag Archives: cars

Free Range Children

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.

The car mindset

People who have cars get into the habit of using them. They are easy, convenient things, and just popping out to fetch something is so simple when you have one. I watched a fellow parent send her bloke out, by car, to a shop ten minutes up the road to get a packet of parsley sauce. The shortest journeys are the least efficient. I know plenty of parents who drive their kids to school, when the distances are entirely walkable. People with cars get used to thinking of the car as something it is fine to use.

People who design towns (and tend to have money) and people who decide where resources will be, tend also to think in terms of cars. Lots of people, due to age, poverty, infirmity or lack of inclination, do not own cars. Living in a culture which assumes you can and will drive places, makes this very hard. It is also unfair, pushing marginalised people further out to the edges. This particularly means younger folk, who cannot drive. If we build housing where there is no access to shops, or schools, give people a minimal or non-existent bus service and leave them to it, the results are not good.

In rural parts of the UK, it’s almost impossible to get by now without a car as the most basic of services have long since left the villages and are being pulled out of the small towns as well. Bus services in the countryside are thin and not very frequent.

Cars facilitate commuting, and people give insane amounts of their lives to driving about from one place to another. The time spent driving is time we never get back. Sitting in queues is a miserable business. They might profess to be convenient, but cars facilitate a way of living that takes far more away from us than it gives back.

This is not entirely a rant against car ownership. It’s a rant about the culture we build around cars, the centralisation of them in the way society is structured, the assumption that everyone can access them.

Being car-less is hard work. Buses do not run when you need them, or where you need them outside of cities. Feet will get you around, but how far can you walk? How much can you carry home from the shops when it all has to go on your shoulders?

For the majority of human history, we did not have cars, and life without them was entirely possible. Most people believe that cars give them freedom and independence. They cost a fortune to run. They are the most dangerous thing most people routinely tangle with. A lot of people die on the roads every year. They are noisy, and they belch out pollution. They currently run on oil and the oil will run out. Long term, they aren’t going to be viable.

It might be sensible to start looking for alternatives now, while we have the time to explore it, and start re-structuring our lives and communities so that car use is not at the heart of all ‘normal’ life.