(Credit: Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
Children in the Northern Hemisphere will be going back to school this month but many of those in Western countries won’t be walking there or taking the bus on their own. Instead they will be driven by parents.
Over the years, the distance children are allowed to roam has been shrinking. This map paints a striking picture of this shrinking freedom over four generations: the great-grandfather, at age eight, was allowed to walk six miles on his own to go fishing, the grandfather at the same age, only about one mile into the woods, the mother, half a mile to the swimming pool, and the son only 300 yards to the end of his street.
“Stranger danger” – or the fear that their child will be abducted – is the reason many parents give for keeping their kids close. However, statistically, the chance of abduction by a stranger is low: a child is more likely to have a heart attack.
Fear of traffic is another common explanation. “Feeling there are too many cars on the road to allow their child to walk or bike to school, they end up driving them, only adding to the problem,” write Chris and Melissa Bruntlett, parents of a nine- and six-year-old and founders of Modacity, a group that encourages urban mobility.
Not only are children being robbed of the chance to explore their neighborhoods on their own, in many cases, their play is closely monitored and they are prevented from taking any type of measured risk.
However, according to a recent study from the University of British Columbia, risky outdoor play positively impacts children’s health.
“We found that play environments where children could take risks promoted increased play time, social interactions, creativity and resilience,” said Mariana Brussoni, lead author of the study, and assistant professor in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health and Department of Pediatrics. She said that natural play environments, “give children a chance to learn about risk and learn about their own limits.” Fear of injury was the reason most parents gave for discouraging this kind of play.
So if we know that some freedom and ability to take risks is good for children, but as a society we aren’t giving them that opportunity, how do we change that? We can start in the home, teaching children about safety and what to do in the event of emergencies. If these lessons are reinforced at school, all the better. Generations ago, older children were given the responsibility of looking after younger ones and the number of children outside at any given time provided some safety. We need to start trusting our children to go places on their own and encouraging other parents to do the same. If enough families make this change the community as a whole will have to take notice and learn how to better accommodate children.
Changes in infrastructure would also help children and their parents feel safer. Many of our streets are built for cars with sidewalks and bike lanes thrown in as an afterthought. The Bruntletts recommend, “changes like raised crosswalks, protected bike lanes, continuous and visible sidewalks and even reduced speed limits,” to help protect children and encourage them to move more freely around their neighbourhoods. It’s time to reverse the trend and stop bubble-wrapping our children. Measured risks are good for their health and development and childhood is much more fun when you can do things on your own.
Ada Slivinski is a Canadian journalist who writes about family and social issues.