'Enemy against free play' - Road fears stop children playing outside

Pre-teen friends sitting on climbing frame in playground

Pre-teen friends sitting on climbing frame in playground. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Fears over road safety and crime are preventing some parents letting their children outside to play independently.

That is the claim from advocates of outdoor play, academics and parents as a study revealed children in the UK are not generally allowed to play outside on their own until just before they turn 11.

This was compared to their parents' generation who were generally let out to play just before the age of nine.

The British Children’s Play Survey, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research into Public Health, took place in April last year in which just over 1,900 parents of five-11-year-olds were surveyed.

Mother-of-three Liz Humphries who is part of the Norwich Mumbler parenting page.

Mother-of-three Liz Humphries, from Norwich. - Credit: Liz Humphries

Liz Humphries, 43, from Norwich's Constitution Hill, who has a 12-year-old son 10-year-old daughter and three-year-old boy, said the decision on giving children more independence outside was a tricky situation.

The freelance content writer, who writes for publications including online parenting website Norwich Mumbler, said: "It depends on where you live and what school your children go to.

"I'm surrounded by busy roads. I'm opposite Sewell Park but I'm very careful about my 12-year-old crossing the road. He goes to school on the other side of the city and his friends live there. It is all about safety."

She first let her eldest son out on his own around 11 and added he was sensible but had friends who let their nine-year-old children ride their bikes on quiet cul-de-sacs or play cricket on the village green which sounded "idyllic".

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The writer added previous generations played outside more on their own because it was safer and there was a lot less traffic on the roads.

Carol Burtenshaw, from Old Catton, with her daughter Amelia, six.

Carol Burtenshaw, from Old Catton, with her daughter Amelia, six. - Credit: Carol Burtenshaw

Carol Burtenshaw, 39, from Old Catton, who has two girls aged six and four, said reports of crimes on social media and the mainstream media could create fear among parents.

The 39-year-old, who manages GroWild Kindergarten Forest School, on Roundtree Way, Norwich, said: "You wonder if that danger is more prevalent or we hear about it more now. It is difficult to make that decision as a parent as to what is safe and appropriate.

"We are on a quiet cul-de-sac but there is the risk of cars. You have to put the onus on drivers being responsible and I don't think I would feel comfortable doing that.

"I don't think you can put an age on when you let your child out. It is only when they have that understanding a responsibility. Every parent has their own way of doing things."

Former primary school teacher Emma Harwood, who owns Dandelion Education Ltd, which has Forest School nurseries in Aylsham and Eaton, said allowing children more access to the outside helped them risk assess situations better, boost creativity, critical thinking, physical skills and cognitive development.

But Miss Harwood, who enjoyed playing on empty streets when she was a child, said: "We probably see there are more crimes now and people are more aware of dangers. There is more coverage."

One community-led group pushing for safer streets, in terms of traffic, is Playing Out.

Matt White, an activator of community interest company Playing Out Norfolk.

Matt White, an activator of community interest company Playing Out Norfolk. - Credit: Matt White

Matt White. 39, an activator from the Playing Out Norfolk group, described traffic and cars on the road as "the enemy against free play" and said many parents felt streets were unsafe for their children.

He said: "Children are hard-wired to play. It is how they learn and develop. They just need space for their creativity and imaginations. These freedoms have been eroded."

Mr White, from Silver Road, Norwich, said councils needed to improve public transport so fewer people relied on cars and wanted streets to have certain times when traffic was restricted so children could play.

Lecturer and LANTERN Lead (Looked After Children's Mental Health Research Network)

Dr Simon Hammond, lecturer and LANTERN Lead (Looked After Children's Mental Health Research Network) from the University of East Anglia. - Credit: UEA

Dr Simon Hammond, from the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia, said: "This is important work which starts to evidence the links between child mental health challenges and adventurous play.

"We also need to acknowledge that resilience, the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties is a dynamic quality gained via experience not in theory. This is a challenge for every generation of parent/carer and this research indicates a need to reconsider and address the balance. As a parent myself, I know this is a constant dilemma.”

He added there was a backdrop of social changes towards risk, safety fears and a lack of government investment in creating and maintaining spaces offering challenges to children.