Photography by La Bella Vita Photography.  

Remember when you were a child, you would run around outside with your friends after school? In those days, children would go down to the local park to play and then, when 5pm came around, raced home! Jenny England looks at the lack of outdoors playing that the current generation is facing.I spent most of my childhood climbing trees. From the treetop branches, I would look out into the neighbourhood and beyond with curiosity and wonder. When I wasn’t climbing trees I was riding my bike around the streets or making up adventure games in the garden or the bush next door with other local children. When I got a little older I would go fishing every weekend with my best friend. We would walk the kilometre or so down to Middle Harbour Reserve and spend many sunny hours climbing around the rocks in search of the best fishing spots. We seldom caught anything worth taking home but we loved every minute of it.Today, fifty or so years on, when I take a daily walk around my leafy suburb I hardly ever hear the delightful squeals of happy children playing energetically in their yards. I never see one climbing a tree, riding a bike, rolling down local sand dunes or fishing by the lake. I rarely see them walking with their friends and neighbours to school. My local park, well equipped with swings, a slide, a see-saw and some bouncing rides as well as a wonderful grassy area full of trees and bushes in which to play hide and seek, is always bereft of children. I find this park a great place to meditate on the grass, under a beautiful sky at this time of my life. But where are the children?Don’t get me wrong, I do see children, of all ages, all the time. I see them locked securely in bulky strollers as their mothers bravely navigate their way around supermarket aisles. I see young children throwing tantrums in shopping centres when they are not given something they want or they want to go home. I see tiny faces pressed up against the wire fence of a local pre-school looking wistfully out into the park where they are obviously not allowed to play. I see them being ferried to and fro in dangerous vehicles (cars) to school and all sorts of tightly controlled group activities. I read with surprise and concern news reports such as how a Sydney primary school has banned children from performing cartwheels, handstands and somersaults in the playground. I hear mothers talk of commercial indoor play-centres where they can relax and have a cup of coffee while their children play. They also talk of play-dates and while these ideas are not in themselves bad ones, they seem a little too contrived to the grandma in me.

‘Wrapping children in cotton wool for much of their childhood does not provide the many opportunities to test themselves; make decisions; learn from failures and develop some resilience to setbacks.’

Is fear for their safety the main reason most parents these days restrict their children’s involvement in the natural and local environment? If so, are they denying them the opportunity to learn about taking calculated risks that will help them steer a thoughtful course through their teens and into their adult years? Is the desire to protect them from dangers that are thought to lurk around our streets and in our parks keeping them from enjoying an active and engaging childhood where they can learn self-reliance?Lenore Skenanzy explores the disappearance of children from the natural environments and neighbourhood streets (and the limitations being placed on children to prevent them enjoying themselves in parks, backyards and schoolyards) in Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). Lenore reports on this in twenty-first century America but the problem is much the same here.FEAR AND ANXIETYThe main underlying cause, raised by Lenore, behind this disturbing development seems to revolve around a generalised sense of anxiety that has been increasing steadily since the turn of the century: a trend found in most developed nations constantly fed by the media. A media that is constantly searching for news stories to shock and amaze to increase sales of newspapers and magazines and increase the advertising revenue of television, radio and internet sites. All this further heightened when something really horrifying does come along like 9/11 or a mass shooting somewhere in the world. Richard Louv in his excellent book Last Child in the Woods describes it this way: “Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young.” It might also be here that we could consider the proliferation of books, articles and television shows by experts offering advice on “how to be a good parent”. Much of this kind of information does little to alleviate the fears of new parents and at times only adds guilt to the anxieties that are already been created by other forms of media.

But even as fears and anxieties about the safety of children in our communities are steadily rising, the opposite is actually happening in reality. Children are, in fact, just as safe as they have been in past generations. Reported incidences of crimes against children have fallen according to statistics collected by the Australian Institute of Criminology in Trends in Violent Crime (June 2008). As far as stranger-danger child abductions are concerned these statistics also show that they are in fact quite rare, the most likely offender in such a case is often a family member or someone known to the child. As for the dangers that lie in wait in natural environments, what about more common dangers in the home? These include ordinary things such as boiling water, electrical outlets, high balconies and open windows, fire hazards, sharp objects, and a full range of poisons in the form of cleaning fluids and even medicines. On top of that, there are probably more pedophiles prowling the internet these days, than walking the streets. According to a Kidsafe (Qld) Factsheet prepared in 2006, 75% of child injury deaths in Australia are caused by either motor vehicle accidents (the largest percentage), drowning in home pools and house fires.

CITIES OUT OF CONTROL

Australia is one of the most urbanised nations in the world. Its cities, mostly along the coastlines, are expanding rapidly. Population growth also leads to increased congestion on Australian roads as only 1 in 5 people opt to use public transport in cities. The rest choose to rely exclusively on their cars to get them from place to place and cars and kids are a dangerous mix. However, when children die in a car accident, it usually has less to do with the child’s behaviour than from reckless adults or teens mixing a car trip with alcohol or fatigue.

As land in urban areas is becoming more scarce and thus more valuable, families are now often forced into high-rise living or houses with very little land attached. So backyards and vacant stretches of public land where children used to spend the largest proportion of their time are fast disappearing. The race to alleviate some of the potential problems of over-crowded cities has lead to a massive amount of regulation by local and state governments. Most of these are not very child-friendly. Take, for example, a recent news story in my local paper about a number of backyard cubby houses that had been ordered to be pulled down as they had not been approved by the council. In another report, a constructed playground had to be closed due to a salmonella outbreak suspected of coming from wood chips under the play equipment. Perhaps it would have been safer to just let the children play on the grass or climb the local trees. Constructed playgrounds also cost a lot of money to build and maintain.

A LITIGATION MENTALITY

I am sure many of the regulations have been put into place for safety concerns but some seem a bit over the top. Many more have probably been designed by governments, agencies and educational institutions and organisations to avoid being sued by someone. It is not as bad as in the USA but Australians are definitely developing an increased litigation mentality. All activities in life involve risk and it would be ridiculous to believe that all risk can be factored or legislated out.

‘We would leave the home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach us all day. No mobile phones, computers, no internet or internet chat rooms…we had friends because all we had to do was go outside and find them. We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents.’

Ria Murch from Remembering Avalon, A Group memoir edited by Jan Roberts

A MATERIAL WORLD

It also appears that childhood has become a new commercial arena in the last few decades with an explosion of profitable products offered in the market promising to enhance children’s growth and educational advancement. Parents and grandparents are constantly being encouraged to buy toys, computer games, DVDs and the like instead of spending time with the child or enabling them to simply enjoy experiences in the world around them. Susan Linn, author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialised World proposes that the development of an active imagination in children is being hindered by this and suggests going back to simple games and equipment that encourage fantasy play.

Lenore Skenanzy, Susan Linn and Richard Louv all agree that restricting children’s unstructured, self-initiated play in natural settings does little for their overall physical development and emotional wellbeing. Lack of physical exercise (along with poor diets) is being blamed for a world-wide increase in childhood obesity. Richard Louv even goes as far to propose a new condition ‘nature deficit disorder’ possibly linked to the rise of ADHD, anxiety and depression among children. I chuckled to myself when I read this definition of nature deficit disorder or NDD by Jacqueline Maley in the Sydney Morning Herald the other day: ‘With today’s children more cosseted than ever, and parents afraid to let them so much as walk to the letterbox for fear some disaster will befall them, children are suffering from NDD. Tragically a whole generation will never know the joys of collecting tadpoles or learn about prickly pear the hard way.’

Wrapping children in cotton wool for much of their childhood does not provide the many opportunities to test themselves; make decisions; learn from failures and develop some resilience to setbacks. Of course, issues such as the over-development of cities and excessive regulations might not be able to be addressed overnight but it is possible to loosen the reigns on children little by little and give them a larger world in which to play even if it is in their imagination to begin with. At the end of the day, we all want the best for the next generation (and the ones after that) so almost anything we do to set them free a bit and give them more room to be themselves is going to help. And it might be a good idea to tune out the daily news from time to time (if you can).

Jenny England has a Social Science degree and a lifetime involvement in children’s services both professionally and as a parent. She has worked as a journalist and freelance writer for over thirty years. Now Jenny is using her retirement years to write sci-fi stories for children when she is not spending time with her grandkids.