'Battery-reared' children miss out on play

Children are being “battery reared” in their bedrooms and deprived of the freedom to play outside by worried parents and a lack of public leisure areas, an expert has warned. A typical eight-year-old's “home habitat” — the area that children are allowed to travel around on their own — has shrunk by 90 per cent over the past 30 years, according to Tim Gill, the outgoing director of the Children's Play Council. An average eight-year-old is now allowed to stray only within a 100-yard circumference of the front door, the council's research showed. Freedoms enjoyed by most eight-year-olds in 1971, such as going to a park on their own, are now delayed until the age of 11 — a loss of three years of independence.

Making his last speech before stepping down, Mr Gill warned that a combination of “stranger danger” fears, public intolerance of youngsters playing outside and the lack of official spaces was leading to the extinction of the “outside child”. He said: “I think we are at a cusp in the lives of children. The threat to the outdoor child has serious implications. It is not only a matter of children becoming physically inactive. Battery-reared children are also denied the chance to learn independence, which may result in poor life skills and mental health problems as they grow up.” A recent study by the Audit Commission found that the loss of school playing fields and public playgrounds meant that each child under 12 had just 2.3 square metres of public play space — equivalent to the size of a kitchen table. For every acre of land devoted to public playgrounds, there are more than 80 acres for golf. Local authorities spend an average of just 8p a week per child on playgrounds. Central government gives 100 times more money in grants to English Nature than it does to bodies that support children's play. Mr Gill called on the Government to do more to promote play, but also criticised public attitudes towards children at play outdoors. He said: “Behaviour that would a few years ago have been 'larking about' is now labelled anti-social.

“Parents fear being judged harshly if their kids are seen outdoors unaccompanied. We could be heading for a vicious circle, leading to a point where the only children out of doors are those labelled as 'feral children' — a striking inversion of the free-range nature of childhood dominant only 30 years ago.” But Mr Gill also warned that parents' preoccupations with "stranger danger" and the increased burden of homework and organised activities were leaving youngsters deprived of the freedom of unstructured, unsupervised play. Despite increased fear of “stranger danger”, statistics show that only five to seven children are murdered by complete strangers each year, a number which has remained constant in the past 30 years.

The council has warned that obesity among children could worsen unless more money is devoted to leisure facilities. A Department of Culture, Media and Sport spokesman said it was providing £200m of lottery money to revitalise play areas.

A mother's view
Kristina Ferris, 41, lives in Charlton, south-east London with her nine-year-old son Jackson and four-year-old daughter Georgia.
She said: “Jackson walks to school on his own, but we only started letting him do that when he was eight.” Ms Ferris said that the school was a five-minute walk, but with a busy road to cross. “He wanted to walk to school, but many friends' parents still won't let them.” She said Jackson was allowed into the street to play on his skateboard or to walk to friends who lived nearby. “But I wouldn't let him go to the local park on his own as it's too far away. He is only allowed out if he is going somewhere specific.” Ms Ferris added: “He also likes going for bike rides but there are no cycle paths around the area so he goes out with his dad and rides on the pavement.”

Maxine Frith
22 September 2004


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