Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Freedom and safety

I have been thinking a lot today about my childhood experiences of unsupervised play – after seeing this news story on the BBC.

This is well timed for us as P is now ten and we’re trying to let her have the independence she needs while taking sensible precautions. But I am very much aware of the shift in culture since my own childhood. It makes me sad. Here are a few of the experiences I’d never have had if I hadn’t been allowed to play unsupervised until I was fourteen.

Sitting on the pavement singing, with Sarah, when we were eleven.

Making our base camp in the forbidden area of the park, beyond the big slide and over the fence. This was called (inexplicably!) ‘Cool for Cats’ and all we ever did was sit there and enjoy the thrill of being in the forbidden zone. This was all the rage when I was ten.

Combining all my money with all of Alison’s and going down to KFC together. We were 1/2p short of what we needed and the guy let us have our drinks and chips anyway. I think we were twelve.

Playing on the site of the demolished house – with a whole gang of kids. This was probably dangerous as there were holes and a fantastic set of stone steps that went nowhere. We found bits of broken china and glass and I hoped we’d find a machine gun or hole in time. We didn’t. I think we were somewhere between ten and twelve.

Lobbing rocks into the big muddy puddle and wading in to get them back – feeling the icy water filling up my wellies. This was with Hannah, and I think I was about nine. We were ‘up the cricket pitch’ – maybe three minutes from her house, but still ‘unsupervised’.

Riding round and round the block one long summer evening, as the sun set and the air chilled. I was alone and loving it. I think I was probably eight or nine.

I don’t know what has changed. There are more cars, of course, but in this town it is actually easier to be a pedestrian than it was when I was a child. Most of the major roads have several safe crossing points and many areas have traffic calming. There is more fear of accidents (not road, just in general) involving children, than when I was a child. But we had much more hazardous play equipment! There is a lot of fear of predatory adults. I’m not dismissive of that but there is no evidence that there is a greater threat than ever there was.

So, why? Why are we all so scared? I had bad experiences as a child – I don’t deny it. But probably the most dangerous situation I was ever in was with a teacher in a school, not playing out with my friends. So, how do we decide what is safe? And how do we make sure our children don’t feel watched all the time? I’d be really interested to hear what other people think about this issue.


Helen said...

I was reading the same article today & thinking much the same. We used to play out in our estate in Edinburgh from the age we went to primary school. As long as we didn't cross the main road we could play round the block in gardens or in the cul-de-sac. In Berlin, it was a different situation in terms of safety due to being on an RAF base but we were out from dawn til dusk as long as we check in with mum at her work a couple of times but this was more to check we hadn't killed each other! My brother & I were usually together with a larger group of kids.
I don't know why its different now. We don't have kids yet but I'd like to think we'd allow our kids a bit more freedom than my friend allows her 8 yo daughter. L isn't even allowed to go to the post box by herself & its just round the corner & there are no roads. I think kids are more in danger for not playing out as its in these larger groups of friends that they learn the confidence to be safe by themselves when older.

Claire said...

When I was a child I was never allowed to 'play out' like my peers. My mum insisted on taking me to set activities and collecting me to escort me home. I felt set aside and it troubled me. I never had any feeling of belonging with my peers. I vowed I would be different with my children. Saddly I'm also a paranoid parent. My edlest is only six, so young to be going far alone unsupervised anyway, but I do worry that when the time comes I will struggle to let go. I suppose I find it difficult to place the rare horrific incidents into perspective. I only hope that when the time comes I'll manage to think more about the benefits of independence and less of the remote possibilities and give my children the opportunities I never had.

Elaine said...

We go down to the beach each night where JR plays with the children living on the front, there is a park, and of course the beach. I stay down there but keep out of the way (sitting on the end of the pier is my favourite way to spend the evening) I can hear and see the children so in that respect I suppose I am not 'letting her play out' but it is as far as I am willing to go. My oldest daughter (29) was free range by 10/11 yrs old and middle daughter (22) by 13yrs old . Its difficult to decide whether I am more possesive or whether it's a sensible course given that not only is she diabetic (and will ignore danger symptoms if the alternative is stopping play) but also, even this far away , I do not trust her father not to try getting to her, and that is a fear that won't go away as she grows.

Dawniy said...

we're lucky in that there are a group of children ranging from 6 to 12 (and Lana is the very grown up 12) so they all this year are playing together in front of the houses - horrible neighbour is the wrost threat , we can all see them from the windows . It's the first year I've let Naomi join in though, and i make sure they always have their mobile phones (not that I guess they would help in any real trouble)
I never let them out of my sight though, and i don't let them wonder away for miles all day like we did when I was young! If my mum knew the things we did she wouldn't have let us either!

Allie said...

That's all really interesting - thanks.

I think it is the 'out of sight' thing that is the stumbling block for many of us. But, I can remember so many things that I'd never have done if I'd been under an adult's gaze. Some of them were mistakes (no doubt about it) but they were all learning experiences.

I wonder if we don't allow our children more freedom, will they feel that we didn't trust THEM? And when the time comes for them to be out there in the world without us, will they be LESS able than if they'd had a bit more practice at the necessary skills when they were younger? And are we actually getting in the way of things we NEED to keep out of??

I'm not saying that anyone is getting this 'right' or 'wrong' and people clearly have specific issues that they need to take into account for their own family. There aren't easy answers but I am puzzled as to how the norm has shifted so much in thirty years?

Anyone else got opinions/experiences to share?

penny said...

well round here everyone seems to let their children play out from about the age of 6. I dreaded doing it but in the end I had to. Catherine was allowed out to play in the cul de sac at nearly 8 for the first time this year and her sister who is 5 and a half goes with her. The first few times I watched from the window anxiously but now I am okay with it. They don't cross roads but they play around our road and round the garages behind. They play out until 7.30 when all the kids go in. On the dot. At 7.30 all the parents call their kids in.

I used to play in the woods on my own until I noticed it was dark. Mine will not be doing that. I think my parents just didn't carfe as much. Or perhaps they didn't realise how far I strayed...

Ruth said...

I do think it depends on location. In our last place the older ones went out all the time but here my son was mugged at 2 pm in the afternoon and my dd belted by boys in the park. It does make me wary and other parents must be cos no one plays out here ever.

Di said...

We have recently started letting our two (6 and 3) go down the road to their other house (their dads' house) on their own. At first we watched them until they went into the other house. Now we don't, though we don't let M, age 3, go on her own. (She did once manage to go without us realising, leading to some serious anxieties for a few minutes ...) They love tearing down the pavement, and I love the fact that P (age 6) sometimes arrives and bangs on our door, or shouts through the letterbox, unannounced.

That time is coming to an end, or at least a pause, because we're moving soon and will be 5 minutes walk away, across a park. So it will be a while before the children can go to 'daddies' house' on their own. I was talking to my mum about how old they'd have to be before we'd let them go across the park the other day, and her response was 'oh but parks are such dangerous places' which shocked us. My mum is a very vocal critic of paranoid stranger-danger fears, and she let me and my sister play in the park on our own (not to mention by the river, by the canal ...) from quite young, certainly by 7 or 8, yet that was her immediate reaction. You are right, Allie--norms have really shifted fast.

I wonder how much collective anxiety about what other parents will think of our decisions limits what we all do about this?

Allie said...

Hi everyone!

Di, I think I do get anxious about what other parents will think. It's like some sort of bidding war - people just seem to define 'safe' as an ever smaller space. And, of course, once it is not the norm for kids to be out without adults, it feels more dangerous if you do allow yours out.

As Penny pointed out, if it is the norm in a particular area then it feels different.

alison said...

Violet and Gwenny are 10 1/2 and nearly 9 now, and I'd be pretty happy for them to go anywhere local, especially when the two of them are together. They go swimming (2 minute walk), to the park (3 minute walk) and have been into town to their bank (10 minute walk). It does make a bit of a difference in that there's 2 of them, and they're both big and can easily pass for older than they are.

We've got a corner shop and a postbox at the end of our road, and the three older ones all go down there alone, and Buttercup can go with one of the big girls. They've each been doing that since about 5 1/2. I've just this last month let all four of them go down to the park together without me, and that seems like a good thing for them to do.

They don't stand out on the streets around here - e.g. we were at a park a mile or so away, and a couple of Violet's friends from school turned up on their bikes.

It's something I feel is really important for them - definitely worth feeling some passing discomfort over.

maya said...

It's a huge issue in my mind, and I was interested to see that it was a hot topic when i was in England this month as I thought it was peculiar to the US. When we lived in bristol it was so refreshing (after CA) to see kids walking to and from school alone, riding their bikes, etc. But going back i did notice that kids still don't really play in the street or alleyways anymore. There was a good piece in the Guardian about it a couple of weeks ago. I find it very depressing and have no idea how to offer my childrne a sense of independence and freedom as they get older. My time alone with my friends playing in the (South London) streets, junkyards, derelict houses, alleyways, etc was so key to my childhood I can't imagine who I'd be without it.