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Advocate for play says children need to be free-range

Research last week revealed the parental fears that keep children indoors. As part of the Western Mail’s Our Wales: Our Children series, Mike Greenaway explains why we should be bringing up our children free-range

FREE-range chickens – the ones that have a happy life outdoors doing what comes naturally – are the ones we don’t feel so guilty about.

But what about free-range children? If we had an ideal it would be that our children could also live a happy life outdoors doing what comes naturally – playing with their friends.

Free-range children are independent, resourceful and develop resilience – they can get from A to B on their own or together with friends. They can learn to negotiate tricky situations, resolve conflict and take physical and emotional risks, which means they develop a robustness that helps them survive in this world.

They also have a different kind of fun and experience from the one they have with their family or at school. All of which contributes to their health and wellbeing – so what’s not to like?

There is a range of reasons why we see so few children out and about these days; none of which they can be held accountable for.

Increased traffic and numbers of cars parked in our streets, and the way our built environment tends to be legislated and designed to suit adults’ needs and not those of children, are two obvious examples.

It may seem that these are perennial problems and that we can do nothing to improve them, but in other countries, and in small pockets in Wales, creative solutions have been found to work.

We just need to push for them and apply them.

But the biggest reason why children don’t play out so much any more is us – our attitudes, our perceptions, our concern about what others might think.

The most harmful of these appears to be the perception and the promotion of the idea that our children are at risk of harm from strangers the minute they leave the company of adults.

Statistics tell us children are far more in danger of being harmed by people they know and that is thousands of times more chance of them being killed in a traffic accident than being abducted.

However, they live under the tyranny of our fear for them and we don’t let them out of our sight. We even convey our anxieties to them – very small children know of the isolated incidence of the abduction of Madeleine McCann and believe they too are at risk.

Media stories of “feral children” also don’t help. There are comparatively few children who are not cared for, who roam because they don’t have strong emotional ties or secure homes to return to.

Knife crime has existed since knives were invented and yet the impression given in the media is every young person on the street is a potential murderer or victim.

Perhaps we adults are scared to rear free-range children because we don’t want others to think we are negligent. We are encouraged to display our love for our children through consumerism, and almost discouraged from making the most of what is freely available, when very often our children would like to just be outside with their friends.

In caring for our children and wanting the best for them we have fallen prey to a panic about them – they must succeed, they must be safe. The irony is that in our fear of children coming to harm or failing in society we act in ways that put them in harm’s way.

Children in Wales today are far more likely to be in danger of early death due to heart disease and diabetes because they are kept indoors and over protected, than of being harmed by strangers, knives, drugs or cars.

Recent experience has shown that when it snows and the world stops, children still go out to play in the same numbers they have always done. It is as if we have stepped back 50 years. So it is clear that it is still possible for children to play outside. Many of us know this but feel powerless to do anything about it. We need to regain a sense of perspective as to how safe our children are.

When we see children playing outside we should see them not as a nuisance, but as evidence of a balanced society that places a high value on children and their play.

There is safety in numbers. Word must spread, more children must play outside, and then more parents and children will feel confident they can play outside.

We can live under the tyranny of cars and fear of strangers, or we can choose to rise against it and find ways to support our children to be free-range – happy, healthy and resilient – today, because childhood only happens once.

Mike Greenaway is director of Play Wales and closely involved in BBC Wales’ What Are We Doing to Our Kids? season - link to PDF full report

Source: Wales Online

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